Now in production at American Stage, Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline is a riveting drama about a young African American man, the choices he makes and the effect they’ll possibly have on his future.
The child of a broken home, 17-year-old Omari shares an apartment with his doting, fretting mother. He’s intelligent and sensitive, but he also carries a big chip on his shoulder. After a violent incident at the private school he attends, Omari’s mother, and his well-meaning but clueless dad, fear that he’s destined to enter the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a sad fact of life in America’s educational system.
Andrew Montgomery Coleman, 25, plays Omari in the American Stage production. Playwright Morisseau, he says, “is trying to wake us up. I think this is part of the black experience that I, personally, don’t really see expressed onstage. The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing, and her ability to capture the human experience – and how we talk – is ridiculously brilliant.”
The Washington, D.C. native grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina – his parents took Andrew and his siblings there for a “normal” upbringing, away from the rough-and-tumble and uncertainty of a big urban center. “I remember high school very fondly,” he says, “and I remember seeing people going through this.
“And with this specific person’s story, Omari’s story, I see him in my father, and my brother, and my cousin. Thankfully, my family was able to steer me away from that pipeline – but there are a lot of people I know who did slide down the pipeline, and had to be caught really quickly. It’s hard. And sometimes there’s literally nothing you can do.”
In the case of Omari’s divorced parents, Nya and Xavier, “These parents did everything they thought they could do,” Coleman observes, “and it still maybe wasn’t enough.”
Tense, intense and unpredictable, Pipeline, as a slice of life, is a work of poetically uncomfortable art. It’s a gut-punch.
“Pipeline,” explains Coleman, “is very much at the top of my resume, and it will be there for a while. I’m so blessed to be able to do Dominique’s work. For a play that only came out two years ago. And I’m glad that people’s eyes are being opened, especially the people in this community.”
An actor who sings, as well as a singer who acts, Coleman believes that theater – the bug bit him in high school – is what made all the difference for him. From the first time he went onstage, he’d found his focus.
He earned a BFA in Acting from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, and was part of its acclaimed, advanced HBCU program. “I wanted to go for musical theater, but my mentor suggested I pick singing, acting or dancing,” he says. “And acting is where my heart was, so I just went there for four years. And I think that has influenced my ability to do musical theater, because I approach songs as monologues.
“I grew up singing. I think I was singing before I was acting. But straight plays, it’s a completely different experience. And I love doing musicals – I’m doing a musical this summer – but there’s something about just being human.”
Pipeline, he says, is the first straight (non-musical) play he’s appeared in since 2015. “It was nice to get back to it and be reminded ‘OK, you’re still able to do this.’ I’m happy that the way I approach musicals is the same way I approach plays, because I’m able to do both.”
Spending a month in England as part of Oxford University’s legendary British American Drama Academy, was another turning point. “BADA taught me how to be confident,” Coleman says. “It’s a collection of people from all different American schools – so there’s Juilliard, NYU and Northwestern, all these schools that I revered but couldn’t get into, just because of money and things like that.
“So to be in a place where everyone is on the same playing field, everyone respects each other, and I was essentially holding my own with all these people, it gave me confidence. My teachers were like ‘Listen, you have to walk into that audition room knowing that you are already enough.’ Know that part is already yours. Just believe in yourself, stick your chest out, keep your head up.”
After graduating from BADA, he adds, “the first audition I went to, I got an offer.”
Currently based in New York, Coleman is living the life of a working actor, traveling to where the jobs take him. His current gig at American Stage represents his first-ever visit to the Tampa Bay area.
Omari, he insists, was a dream role. Are there others?
“In terms of musical theater, I think I’ve played every dream role,” he smiles. “Although new ones come up – I really want to play Flick in (Jeanine Tesori’s) Violet. In terms of straight plays, I really want to play Kent from Stick Fly, by Lydia Diamond. That’s my favorite play. After Pipeline.
“Stick Fly was the first time I saw wealthy black people outside of The Cosby Show. And Kent’s monologue to his older brother was one of the first monologues I learned in college. And I was like, this is me, I feel so seen in this moment.”
Information and tickets here.