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Review

Ujima has a winner in powerful, poetic 'Pipeline'

Oh, what a mouth on that girl Jazmine! Her boyfriend Omari is the one in trouble -- he's the one who shoved his teacher and might be expelled, or worse -- but Jazmine is the one dropping f-bombs and going crazy.

It's a great scene, coming early in Dominique Morisseau's eloquent humanizing of the school-to-prison pipeline. Frankly, "Pipeline," now playing in the new Ujima theater space on Buffalo's West Side, is absolutely packed with great scenes as it rushes through an entire universe of emotions.

Morisseau's magic is in making her characters so imperfectly real. Nya, an inner-city school teacher, has sent her son Omari to a suburban prep school to keep him away from the turmoil in her public school. She's not exactly a hypocrite. She's doing what she can to help in her neighborhood; she just wants more for her only child.

But, as the play opens, it looks like there was no escape for Omari. This latest incident is Omari's third strike, and this time, he might even be arrested -- if the school decides to press charges against the black kid from the city.

We meet Nya (Shanntina Moore) just as she gets this news. Moore is alone onstage, and in a few short lines shows us a confident woman whose dreams are collapsing around her. Meanwhile, back at school, Omari and Jazmine are dealing with the trouble as all teenagers do: focusing almost entirely on themselves and how to avoid or contain the consequences.

Director Lorna C. Hill could not have done better in casting this handsome couple. As Omari, Jerai Khadim gives us a teen who really did want to fit in -- right up until it became clear he never would. He's now torn between doing right by his parents and being true to himself.

Jazmine, however, expects him to gives some of that attention to her, and she is not shy about letting him know. Samantha Cruz is a joy to watch here: She knows she's cute, she knows she's smart and she will not be denied.

And then Morisseau one-ups her in the very next scene, back in the faculty lunchroom where Nya works. Laurie, an English teacher, blows in with a storm of obscenities that rocket her to the top of the outrage spectrum. It would be shocking if it weren't so hysterical, since Laurie is played by the wonderful Mary Moebius, aka a middle-aged white woman dressed in off-the-rack casual wear and mad as hell.

Laurie, who also is Nya's friend, as just returned from three weeks off for facial reconstruction after being slashed in school. That's not what she's mad about. She's mad because while she was away, the substitute teacher just had her class watch  season four of "The Wire," a student told her, "to teach them what not to do."

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"I left lesson plans, for f--'s sake," she laments.

And Nya shows us what a good teacher can do, in her classroom giving a lesson on Gwendolyn Brooks' famous poem, "We Real Cool," which defines the divisions in society and the fate she fears for Omari. (We also want to mention the excellent use of video as backdrop in Robert J. Ball's set design. Polarized images underscore the action with a punch.)

The male characters are equally complex. Phil Davis Sr. as school security guard Dun manages to keep a positive outlook despite what he says is the resentment and rage built into the tough school's students. "It's older than the bricks in this building," he says, drawing a parallel to another literary work that is key to Omari's story, Richard Wright's "Native Son."

Omari's father and Nya's ex-husband is Xavier, played by Johnny Rowe as though he has lived in his clothes all his life. Xavier doesn't want to fight society's battles, he wants to get on with his life and is stunned to discover how that has affected his son.

"Pipeline" delivers its tough message with such poetic elegance you want to see it again, just to try to figure out how it's done. A fine start to the Ujima season.

THEATER REVIEW

"Pipeline"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Dominique Morisseau's contemporary drama about one family's personal struggle against what they fear is society's legacy. Presented through Oct. 13 at Ujima Theater, 429 Plymouth Ave. For tickets, go to ujimacoinc.org.

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