Unicorn Theatre’s “Pipeline” Is an Unflinching Look at Our Flawed Institutions

Nya and her son Omari speak on stage in a scene from Pipeline

Chioma Anyanwu and Raheem Fielder-Bey in “Pipeline” (Cynthia Levin)

At the core of Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. “We Real Cool” is recited aloud repeatedly throughout the play. It’s emblazoned on set pieces. Thanks to the play’s school setting, we even get an academic breakdown of the poem and its fraught publication history. Given the immense scope of the play–tackling ideas of systemic racism from many angles, both personal and institutional, all in just 90 minutes–Morisseau smartly wields the poem as a touchstone throughout. Its brief text, written from the perspective of a Black teen playing hooky from school, follows the characters, haunting them, and also works as a multi-faceted metaphor for the larger forces they find themselves up against.

“Pipeline” tells the story of two educational systems. Nya (Chioma Anyanwu), is a Black high school English teacher working at a public school where violence is prevalent, affecting students and staff alike. Her son, Omari (Raheem Fielder-Bey) attends an elite, predominantly white, private boarding school where, hypothetically–ideally–he shouldn’t have to deal with that sort of thing.

Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” adorns the set in “Pipeline.” (Cynthia Levin)

“Pipeline” is a slow burn in terms of its stakes. We know that Omari has been involved in some sort of violent incident on school grounds but the story focuses heavily on the more personal aspects of the event–Nya’s debilitating anxiety, the friction between her and Omari’s father, the abandonment felt by Omari’s girlfriend Jasmine (played by Jackie Price, delivering a series of captivating monologues).

But Morisseau makes it clear that these institutional forces are insidiously inextricable from the personal aspects of the lives of her characters. No amount of “education and opportunity” can keep Omari from experiencing discrimination as a young man of color in America. Not even his ritzy private school can shield him from the school-to-prison pipeline that’s built into the foundations of these institutions.

The cast at The Unicorn does an incredible job of bringing Morisseau’s brilliant script to life, capturing all of its comedy and darkness. This is a play that forces its audience to examine situations from all sides, not letting us rest on ideas of heroes and villains, and the entire cast proves themselves up to the task. Even characters that could easily be reduced to caricatures–the white public school teacher who just wishes we could go back to being able to hit kids to keep them in line, or the distant, buttoned-up father and ex-husband–are fully fleshed out to the point of earning our genuine compassion alongside our judgment.

There has been stellar work done all around here. Director Teresa Leggard and a strong cast don’t let a moment of Morisseau’s script go unexamined. Kelli Harrod’s sets manage to evoke not just place but thematic depth with a transformative simplicity. And throughout it all, Anyanwu serves as an anchor with her performance as Nya, exuding all at once strength and compassion, vulnerability, longing, anxiety, and despair. In the show’s brief runtime she presents a devastating image of a teacher, a mother, a lover, a Black woman living in America–a true full human in immense, quiet pain.

Pipeline is the rare show that feels like it could actually benefit from being longer. At just 90 minutes with no intermission (arguably the ideal length for most pieces of theater), its conclusion comes a bit abruptly. But the tradeoff means that even with its extended literary metaphors running throughout, with Brooks’ text repeatedly thrust at the audience, nothing comes across as heavy-handed, which, in the end, is definitely preferred. 

“Pipeline” runs through November 7 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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