The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dominique Morisseau’s ‘Pipeline’ looks at a troubled young man, and who failed him

Justin Weaks, left, as Omari and Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier in Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline.”
Justin Weaks, left, as Omari and Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier in Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline.” (C. Stanley Photography/Studio Theatre)

The essence of “Pipeline,” Dominique Morisseau’s lucid autopsy of a broken black family and the institutions that aren’t designed to help them, boils down to a mournful scene in a hospital waiting room. There, sullen, teenage Omari, powerfully embodied by Justin Weaks, gets a quiet moment with the father (Bjorn DuPaty’s emotionally unavailable Xavier) who has failed him in the least tangible and yet most important way.

They’re waiting for news of Omari’s mother and Xavier’s ex-wife, Nya (a gently persuasive Andrea Harris Smith), who has suffered some sort of nervous collapse, when Omari, brittle and unwelcoming, unloads on an Xavier attempting reconciliation. It’s a potent eruption that Weaks unleashes, the sort that demands some paternal gesture to quell the fire. How Xavier does respond, though, seems unwittingly to validate Omari’s rage and tells you all you need to know about the nurturing responsibility that this father has abrogated.

“Pipeline,” directed with sensitivity by Awoye Timpo for Studio Theatre, is all about what’s failed to convey in the passing down of security and devotion from one generation to the next. Omari’s deep in crisis: His enrollment in an elite boarding school is threatened after he assaults a teacher, an event that invites Morisseau’s allusions to Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and the character of Bigger Thomas, the young Chicago man whose blind fury explodes in more extreme forms of violence. In scenes in the urban high school where Nya teaches English, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks is invoked, too, a means of underlining another tradition nourished on hardscrabble city streets: the rich and original literary one.

The play suffers a bit from some of its more prosaic passages: the examination of the challenges of Nya’s academic life and her interactions with other school employees don’t cover much new dramatic territory. You also get the sense that — as with the seemingly random addition of a thwarted romantic interest for Omari, in the guise of Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez’s vivacious Jasmine — subplots intended for fuller development were edited down, to the point of feeling superfluous.

In the triangle of Omari, Nya and Xavier, though, Morisseau establishes the kind of mystery that has you wondering what’s been lost, or never even had a chance to grow, in this family. (You could wish for another taut evidentiary scene circling this pivotal issue.) As in the break room of “Skeleton Crew,” her drama set in a struggling Detroit auto assembly plant, the playwright contributes some of her most incisive work in conjuring people pushed to an extreme; in that case, the portrayal of her financially reckless central character, Faye, drove the narrative. Similarly, in her book for the hit Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” the characters she drew most electrifyingly were the singers played by Jeremy Pope and Ephraim Sykes — the group’s troublemakers.

You could, in fact, draw a direct line from Sykes’s volatile original Temptation, David Ruffin, to Weaks’s Omari: What is the energy in their festering resentments that so compels and sidelines them? Maybe Jasmine is on hand in “Pipeline” to help us see the Omari she has seen, the one she finds so irresistible, and is drawn to not simply because they are two students of color in a white prep school.

“Pipeline” unfolds on designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s sparely adorned set in Studio’s Mead Theatre, with Alexandra Kelly Colburn’s projections of raucous school grounds providing a thematic framework. But it’s Weaks’s evocation of inner turmoil that gives the play its most illuminating context. In Smith’s accessible performance, we get intimations of kindness and helplessness — a teacher less confident in the rules for raising a son than teaching a class. And DuPaty convincingly offers up a father whose usefulness has no more dimensionality than an elegant suit laid out pristinely on a bed.

Morisseau holds out hope for Omari, for sure. You’ll need a bit of patient commitment to see where she is headed on this score, and you may even question how Morisseau justifies her conclusion. Still, even with some dramaturgical shortcomings, “Pipeline” reaffirms this playwright’s compelling vision.

Pipeline, by Dominque Morisseau. Directed by Awoye Timpo. Costumes, Sarita Fellows; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Fan Zhang; projections, Alexandra Kelly Colburn. With Ro Boddie, Pilar Witherspoon. About 95 minutes. $60-$90. Through Feb. 16 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300.