Lileana Blain-Cruz is having a lively time of it lately: in the past 18 months, her acclaimed productions have included The Bakkhai, Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In the midst of this activity, I was happy to sit down with Blain-Cruz on a rehearsal break of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, which starts performances June 15th in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Blain-Cruz previously directed Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War for LCT3.
Brendan Lemon: When you first read Pipeline, what stood out for you?
Lileana Blain-Cruz: Dominique [Morisseau] writes incredibly rich characters, and I was struck by all of them in this play. The story moves so swiftly and intensely that the result is a gut punch. In the best kind of way. I was immediately struck by Nya and Omari and their mother-son dynamic.
BL: I may be wrong, but I don’t see a lot of deeply explored mother-son relationships in recent American drama.
LBC: Me, neither. Nya has an ex, Xavier, who is featured in the story, but she is basically a single mother raising her son. The topic feels so alive. Particularly as an African-American woman at the center of the story: you don’t often get to see that perspective.
BL: And the treatment isn’t a cliché African-American struggling single mom.
LBC: She’s a very special woman, with a very specific relationship with her son. Dominique honors that humanity. And there’s no judgment on who these characters are and where they’re coming from. That’s what makes it a great play: you understand where everybody is coming from. Nobody is good or bad. They’re just people.
BL: Audiences often seek out a character to root for. When the characters are complex – a mixture of good and less-good – the audience might need a few minutes to realize that the drama isn’t about rooting for one person against another.
LBC: The play is called Pipeline. There’s this force outside of them that’s overpowering. All of us are participating in a system that basically leaves little space for young black men. When you’re rooting for every character in a play you have to engage in an analysis of the system that got them to where they are in the first place. That’s what so exciting about working on this play: you’re forced ask what is the larger problem. By examining the specific problem you get to the macro perspective.
BL: Dominique and her mother are and were educators. It allows for an insider’s perspective that’s often missing from plays about life in schools.
LBC: If this were a documentary there would be more of an outsider’s perspective. By being on the inside, Dominique can recognize that this is about something bigger, deeper. She has said in our rehearsals that when something goes wrong in a school there’s a tendency to assign all the blame to the teachers. In this story, she is looking at the issue from the perspective of those teachers and the people around them. There’s a reason why these young men are struggling…There’s a whole system geared against them. That’s alarming.
BL: When you read this play and imagined it coming to life, did you have a clear visual sense of it and how you would stage it, or does the staging occur mostly with the actors in the rehearsal room?
LBC: It’s a combination. The challenge presented by this play is that we are in many different locations We needed a design that would allow for fluidity and speed, because the story moves so quickly. This play is very well-suited to the Mitzi. The space feels like a forum, and lends itself to the idea that Nya is in a classroom talking to her students. The designers and I try to create a space that can hold the whole story and then with the actors in rehearsal we try to decide how to move within it.
BL: Does this play remind you of any play you’ve directed recently?
LBC: Oh, no, this is unique!
BL: As are all good plays.
LBC: Yes. This one is very specific and it’s really exciting. I have compared working on Pipeline to working on an ancient Greek play, because the stakes are so high and you are immediately faced with characters in high-stakes situations. You are engaged in a moral and ethical and political questioning. That for me is really satisfying.
BL: You are not afraid of working with challenging texts – Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Kennedy. But Pipeline is quite a bit different from those gnarlier works.
LBC: The text structure of Gertrude and Adrienne Kennedy is gnarlier, but Dominique has a directness to her language that’s accompanied by an emotional gnarliness. Because everybody comes in with so much baggage, so much history. Even though the play is 90 minutes long you’ve got more than 20 years of history inside each character. What is happening inside each moment? What is the part of each character’s narrative than you are working through? Dominique’s language twists on such fast turns, and to track the right emotional journey has been a great challenge for the cast. Is this the moment when she breaks down or is this the moment when she flares up?
BL: You work on both older and newer texts. Yet you always have a sensitivity to finding out how we make a story work in the present. You do it without any of the groaningly obvious relevance that I’ve seen lately in the staging of classic texts. I won’t mention names.
LBC: That sensitivity is the number-one thing for me as a director. Time is precious, and folks don’t really have long attention spans. So if you’re going to bring them into the theater you want them to feel like the play is speaking to the present moment no matter when the story takes place. Pipeline allows for that quality. Dominique didn’t write it yesterday, yet it is very alive. We have a current Secretary of Education who says terrifying things about marginalized groups. At a time when young black men – CHILDREN -- are being killed as children on the streets you can’t help but feel: what is happening in a larger sense about this? And, more specifically, what is happening to the mothers who are stressing about their children? Dominique allows a window into that stress while asking: how can we respond differently to it than we are responding now? And she does it in an extremely engaging way.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.