At the first rehearsal for Pipeline, Justin Ellington, the award-winning composer who has done the production’s sound, mentioned “DAMN.”, the recent album by the rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar. A few weeks later, Ellington told me, “I make the parallel between Kendrick and ‘Pipeline’ because that album is saying, ‘I’ll tell you who I am and I’ll also remind you of who YOU’VE been telling me I am.’ I relate that thought strongly to Omari” – the teenager whose situation, along with that of his mother, Nya, is central to Pipeline’s story.
“The album isn’t overly specific,” Ellington continued, “in terms of what’s on the news. It’s broader: it’s someone letting us know what’s been happening for a long time to some of the members of American society. Some of Kendrick’s themes are: The misrepresentation of a person, the miscommunication between people, and the missed opportunities to gain perspective. The perspective part is especially reflected in Pipeline.”
Ellington related the representation theme to his own growing-up, in College Park, Georgia, which is adjacent to the southern boundary of Atlanta. “College Park is not very ethnically diverse but it’s also not monolithic. Some rapper may say ‘the place is so tough’ but I’m from there and I may not have experienced it the same way.” Ellington continued, “What Omari in Pipeline is saying, and what a lot of people, not just African-Americans, are saying right now in the culture, is: ‘Stop looking at us through only one lens. Because we’re not just one thing.”
Ellington’s sound design for Pipeline is a mixture of original composition and pre-existing material. “We’re always trying to expand our audience in the theater,” Ellington said, “so something familiar and comfortable – a Stevie Wonder song, for example -- is helpful. But that song also needs to push the story forward.” Ellington added: “I’ve talked to teenage boys who’ve come to see Pipeline. Maybe it was those kids’ first time seeing a professional play. The sound may help them feel welcome.”
The play’s themes are also connecting with other age groups. “I’ve talked to people on the crew,” Ellington said, “people who may be twice my age. They watch the scene of Omari with his father and tell me, ‘That was me with my dad.’ The themes of the story go beyond the specifics of the characters. This isn’t ‘a black play.’ It’s a perspective play, and it’s a perspective that happens to be pressing and poignant right now.”
Also pressing right now: Ellington’s next project, called “Primer for a Failed Superpower.” He is one of a group of composers who have put together reworked versions of iconic protest songs. “All of them are pre-existing,” Ellington said, “but they have been mashed-up to create a narrative about celebrating and questioning what it means to be an American.” Put together by the New York-based collective The Team, whose best-known member is the director Rachel Chavkin, “Primer for a Failed Superpower” will be performed August 22 and 23 at Roulette in Brooklyn.
Ellington related Pipeline to rappers and protest songs but he also connected the play with his previous project at Lincoln Center Theater: creating music and sound for Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, which was performed in the Mitzi E. Newhouse in 2012. “In both plays, we learn early on about something major that’s happened. But that thing turns out not to be the main event. What’s central is what the family is not talking about. They’re talking about the icing and not the cake. To hold our attention, most stories need some cake.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.