It’s the kind of incident that’s likely to quickly go viral. A student, feeling accused as he’s questioned about the meaning of a text, impulsively pushes his teacher against a whiteboard. The private school that he attends wants to expel him for assault. His mother, also a teacher but at an under-resourced public school, is hoping that administrators don’t press charges, thus throwing her son into the netherworld of a criminal justice system more bent on retribution than rehabilitation.
Unless a story like this escalates into something more serious or tragic, it hardly merits a mention on the news. But the fraught situation gets a muscular and poetic examination in “Pipeline,” Dominique Morisseau’s 2017 drama now up in a gut-wrenching production by director Lou Bellamy at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
The taut 90-minute one-act packs an emotional wallop, with palpably moving performances by the brilliant Erika LaVonn as mother Nya, tightly wound Kory LaQuess Pullam as her son Omari and the coolly distinguished Ansa Akyea as estranged father Xavier.
Actually, there are no wanting performances in the drama, the third Morisseau play to be staged at Penumbra (after “Detroit ’67” in 2015 and “Sunset Baby” a year later). The cast also includes spitfire performer Melanie Wehrmacher as swear-happy teacher Laurie, Darius Dotch as charismatic school guard Dun and Kiara Jackson in a smart and subtle turn as Jasmine, Omari’s underwritten schoolmate and girlfriend.
Together, these actors make the story immediate, honest and powerful. LaVonn, who played the matriarch in “A Raisin in the Sun” and the angel in “The Mountaintop” — both Penumbra productions done with the Guthrie — is especially compelling as she combines a teacher’s knowledge of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline and a mother’s concern for her child. The tears that she summons are matched in the audience.
Morisseau, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship last year and is represented on Broadway by “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” can write her way out of any box. In “Pipeline,” her sharp dialogue nods to her forebears, specifically to novelist Richard Wright and poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
The text that triggers Omari’s assault is Wright’s “Native Son.” The teacher, we learn, had called on Omari to tell why the animal was unleashed in the character.
Morisseau also laces Brooks’ hallmark poem “We Real Cool” throughout. The poem is overused, and the gloss on it is harsh instead of the melodic, jazzlike swing that Brooks imparted when she performed the poem at readings.
But the work, plus the bristling emotions that spill over in the play, show that while language and people change, the subject matter and concerns remain constant. America was built on the promise of its citizens having a shot to pursue their happiness and dreams. “Pipeline” reminds us that that simple statement has a lot of complexities.