“What matters between fathers and sons is what’s not said,” wrote Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman illustrates that statement as well as any drama in the canon. That charged relationship is at the heart of one of Pipeline’s many affecting scenes. It takes place in a hospital, to which the public-school teacher, Nya, has been admitted. Her 17-year-old son, Omari, portrayed by Namir Smallwood, finally breaks out of his inarticulateness towards his father, who is played with heartbreaking authority by, as is happens, an actor named Omari - Morocco Omari.
After a recent matinee performance, I asked Smallwood about his character in that scene. “Omari is hurting,” he explained, “and that scene gives him a chance to name the hurt. He is experiencing deep-seated pain. He’s going through hormonal changes and is about to turn 18 and his father isn’t present physically. Omari finally confronts him about that.”
Smallwood, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, went to Seton Hall Prep, and studied acting at the University of Minnesota, related the scene to his own biography. “When I was 14, I did an academic enrichment program and I took part in the drama club. We did a skit about a son who hadn’t seen his father in years and then his father comes back one day. At that point, my dad hadn’t been in my life for a year, so I had something to draw on. (Smallwood said he and his father have a strong relationship now.)
The skit was a Eureka moment in Smallwood’s journey to professional acting. At the age of 9 and 10, he had performed Martin Luther King speeches in public and, he said, “I realized I could make older people feel something.” Doing the drama-club skit, however, he discovered that he could also make himself cry. “Everybody came up to me after that and said, ‘You should be an actor.’ From that point on, I said, ‘God, if this is what I’m supposed to do with my life then I’m all for it.”
The age of 14 provided another signal moment in Smallwood’s development. He had just met Marion McClinton, a director and playwright best known for staging the work of August Wilson. “Marion directed me in a play in Minneapolis called Pa’s Hat: Liberian Legacy, by Cori Thomas. My character was 14, and I said, ‘Marion, I don’t remember what it’s like to be that age.’ He replied, ‘Don’t think about it like that. Your character is a soldier. His childhood is gone. He still has the mind of a pubescent boy but he’s seen a lot. So use that.’ That advice changed how I look at a character and how I look at language.”
Smallwood had another indelible experience in Minneapolis, when he played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Guthrie. “That was the biggest set I’ve ever been on. It had a huge staircase that was black and Titania’s lair was a giant egg. That egg got applause every night.”
Audiences at Pipeline have been responsive in a different way. “There are many kinds of silences in the theater,” Smallwood said. “But one of them in particular indicates when people are listening – when they’re really engaged. We’ve had a lot of that kind of response with this show. We’ve also had other kinds of engagement, with people calling out at the stage when something strikes them. Personally, I think that’s great. I want people to enjoy themselves and to see themselves in this story. It’s specific, but also very universal.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.