Theater Review: PIPELINE (African-American Shakespeare Company, San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center)

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by Chuck Louden on March 26, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Theater can do more than entertain. A good drama can not only pull at your heartstrings, it has the ability to educate, influence and inform. Pipeline, now playing in San Francisco at the Taube Atrium Theater, is the story of Nya, (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) an inner-city public school teacher, dedicated to her students, but also anxious to give her only son Omari (Atlantis Clay) a chance to make a better life for himself at a more elite private high school. While attending there, an incident between Omari and a teacher threatens him with expulsion. This uncovers a simmering rage in both Omari and his mother. The unfolding story helps illustrate our country’s harsh educational system and how its policies and prejudices tend to leave behind or criminalize young men of color. The unfortunate consequences can lead to a predestined future for these young men who are targeted early.

Nya is a divorced single mom trying to play by the rules and do what is best. Omari is smart and self-aware, already knowing in his young life what he is up against given his background. On a daily basis he’s forced to compare himself with his privileged peers at his private school. Singled out and targeted at his school by theoretically well-minded white people, he’s set up to lose with any choice he makes. He also has the trope of the well-meaning, educated but emotionally absent father Xavier (Michael Gene Sullivan). Rounding out the cast is Jasmine (Ije Success), Omari’s girlfriend, also an African-American student at the private school who faces the similar struggles of trying to fit in this world of privilege that she’s been dropped into.

 Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Atlantis Clay

Dun (Gary Moore) is Nya’s colleague and security guard at the public school. He also serves as Nya’s friend and confidante. His daily struggle is to try to keep a sense of order in the chaotic environment of the public high school. Laurie (Kelly Reinart) is the white high school teacher and colleague. Beyond being burned out with her profession, she’s fighting the system, and her place in it.

The writing for all the characters is spot on. Playwright Dominique Morisseaus dialogue is interspersed with prose and poetry for all the characters. We see the story from all points of view. Each actor is given a chance to share their raw emotions and vulnerabilities with monologues about their good intentions. Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool” is cited and interpreted to illustrate the difference between two cultures. The open and bare stage projects words and illustrations on a backdrop appearing as a blackboard. This aids in setting up a backdrop and providing context. (Giulio C. Perrone, set; Raymond Archie, sound ). L. Peter Callender effectively has his cast move and maneuver all over the stage as a way to communicate. The audience palpably experiences their stream of consciousness thoughts as they process their feelings and vulnerabilities.

 Michael Gene Sullivan, Gary Moore and Atlantis Clay

All the performances are moving and effective. The teenagers, Omari and Jasmine, both look and sound like real teenagers figuring out their adolescent emotions. However the lion’s share of the acting falls on Nya who is really the protagonist of the show. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong’s riveting performance draws the audience into her proud and personal struggle where there are no easy, if any, clear choices.

This engaging and powerful one-act show from the African-American Shakespeare Company draws the audience in from the opening scene. The play’s strong impact and message stays with you well after you leave the theater.

photos by Joseph Giammarco

African-American Shakespeare Company
Taube Atrium Theater
San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, 401 Van Ness Ave
Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on March 31, 2024
for tickets ($15-$40), call 800-838-3006 or visit African-American Shakes

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