Opening night got in under the wire, right before Governor DeWine’s order to stop all public gatherings over one hundred people was issued, hence causing Ensemble Theatre to suspend performances of PIPELINE.
This play is probably the crown jewel of the season and I really hope they’re able to perform it again soon.
Playwright Dominique Morriseau has had a couple of plays produced by ETC, including DETROIT ’67 and last season’s SKELETON CREW. She has a way of mixing poetry into her character’s dialogue that flows naturally, is story-focused, and is quite beautiful. This play is the story of Omari, a young African-American high school student who, despite having a public school teacher for a mother, is sent to a mostly white preparatory school outside of his neighborhood thanks to his affluent father. Through the narrative, we also meet Omari’s Latina girlfriend, an overworked school security guard, and a veteran white teacher who’s been through it all.
Omari is in trouble; he raged out in class and shoved his teacher into the SmartBoard, which was caught on cell phone cameras. He’s not only facing expulsion but potential criminal charges, too. His mother, Nya, is beside herself. His girlfriend is scared to lose him. His father isn’t helpful. So, he runs away.
Throughout the production, Morriseau examines themes of anger, racism, education, violence, and family. Her gorgeous script accentuates the dynamics between fathers and sons and mothers and sons and educators and students and the underlying anxiety and fear that permeates the culture. There’s a lot packed into this ninety-minute production.
Because Morriseau writes so poetically, the actor’s interpretation is vital to a successful performance. Under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, this cast exceeds with most blasting into the stratosphere.
Sharrell D. Luckett (“Nya”) stands at the center of the show, and her bold choices demonstrate intent with every syllable. Jay Wade’s (“Omari”) choices add realism to the stage; his performance is quite brilliant and his future is limitless. Angelica Santiago (“Jasmine”) brings both comic relief and authenticity in her relationship with a troubled, charismatic boyfriend. Kenneth Early (“Xavier,” Omari’s father), who seems to find new strength each time he’s on stage, is both off-putting and sympathetic — just like a real person might be. His work is full of layers and texture.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic, though, is between security guard “Dun” (Bryant Bentley) and fresh-from-an-assault-teacher “Laurie” (Connan Morrissey). At one point, she compares teaching in this neighborhood to “war,” and these battle buddies have two of the most exciting interactions on stage. It’s flirtatious and protective and then later contentious and adversarial. I’ve liked Bentley each time I’ve seen him; he’s such a pro.
The fire in the belly of Morrissey’s “Laurie” (and thus Morrissey herself) is fierce and might be my favorite performance of 2020 so far. She’s raw, honest, and the white-hot passion in her eyes — even from Row H- was real. I was blown away.
This is an extremely well-directed production. Parson uses just enough style to make the transitions interesting, yet remains focused on the story. There are five settings; they’re all visible throughout the production using the entire stage (designed by Brian c. Mehring, as well as the lighting). It’s functional, but as usual, the nuanced touches like the tile floor in the school-sets and the use of the height of the stage to project video separate his work from the pack.
Matt Callahan’s sound design is impressive, though there were a few things that distracted from the action on stage, including an odd choice to clip a pre-recorded track in unusual places. Dana Rebecca Woods’ costumes fit within the overall production, and the projections from Mike Tutaj mirror the tone of Parson’s vision and Morriseau’s writing.
The opening night audience provided interesting social observations, with various verbal responses coming from those in attendance. Knowing “mhms,” agreeable laugher, and some shocked gasps all were uttered throughout. There’s no doubt everyone was engaged in every moment.
I just hope that others will be able to experience this critical, remarkable production soon.
Stay tuned to Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s web site for updates regarding if and when this play will resume performances. Also, check out Rob Bucher’s Behind the Curtain Cincinnati for all updates regarding COVID-19 and its impact on theatre in Cincinnati.