Saturday, October 24, 2009

Timely Drama

Written by Nathan Louis Jackson
Directed by Thomas Kail
Starring Francois Battiste, Crystal A. Dickinson, Alano Miller, Wendell Pierce

Performances through November 22, 2009
Mitzi Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street

Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology sensitively shows a black family in crisis, as two brothers must come to terms with their shared past and divergent futures while helping their sick, widowed father through a debilitating illness.

Jackson’s drama begins in 1982 by introducing William King and his pregnant wife Sonia King. The rest of the play takes place in 2009: William has been alone since Sonia died 15 years ago, oldest son Ennis lives nearby with a pregnant girlfriend, and youngest son Malcolm--who finished his Masters degree at UConn--has returned home, but hasn’t deciding whether to pursue a career back East or stay home near his family.

The play’s title comes from Ennis’ half-joking announcement that, since he has experience being poor, he’s an expert in the “science” of broke-ology. Jackson’s knack for writing fluid dialogue takes both the measure of his characters and the temperature of the current climate: Broke-ology is a timely play that reminds us that hard-working families in the heart of middle America have been left behind in more ways than one.

But Broke-ology is also a shrewdly-written, old-fashioned family drama. Although there are comments about living in the hood and about Santa as a symbol of white oppression, that the Kings are black is incidental to their problems, which are universal. Jackson’s writing is particularly incisive during the explosions between brothers: when Ennis accuses Malcolm of wanting to run away to Connecticut instead of staying home near their dad, he spits out the state’s name as if he was saying a derogatory racist term.

There are gaffes, notably Jackson’s mishandling of Sonia‘s ghost. First, she seems part of William‘s imagination, but she returns later and none of the three men sees her. Is she a guardian angel of sorts (which seems possible based on the end of the play)? Whatever she is, Jackson never integrates her into the otherwise strenuously realistic framework.

Happily, Broke-ology has been staged with utmost conviction by director Thomas Kail, whose talented collaborators include designer Donyale Werle: his superlative set precisely recreates the interior of the King’s lower middle–class home, from its ugly linoleum floors and horrid shag carpeting to its beat-up but functional furniture, cupboards and appliances.

The excellent ensemble is led by Wendell Pierce, a terrific actor who gives an impassioned performance as William, while Crystal A. Dickinson invests the small role of Sonia with much warmth. And, as the brothers, Francois Battiste (Ennis) and Alano Miller (Malcolm) impressively make their adversarial relationship percolate with the kind of back-and-forth banter that shows that their affection for each other overrides any disagreements, however serious.
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