Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2008
“He’s dying, but he’s not dead yet,” Malcolm King observes about his father William, who is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. Malcolm has just completed a degree in environmental science and economics from UConn and has been accepted to graduate school and met a girl he really likes back in Connecticut, but a trip home to Kansas City, KS, puts him in the agonizing position of having to choose between attending to his father’s final needs, or attending to his own future.
Every member of the African-American King family is intelligent, proud, law-abiding, and hard-working. They don’t have much money but they have each other. While they shout and bicker as much as the next family, they love, support, and admire one another. You like these people from the minute you meet them.
And when you meet William (Wendell Pierce) and Sonia (April Yvette Thompson) King it is 1972 and they are expecting their first child. They are very much in love and looking forward to starting their family – looking forward to raising children who will make them happy and proud.
In the very next scene it is 2007 and that baby, Ennis (Francois Battiste), and his younger brother Malcolm (Gaius Charles) are grown men. Sonia has died of cancer some ten years earlier, and William is now suffering from MS, which is robbing him of his eye-sight, his independence, and his dignity.
Ennis has not gone to college. He has stayed in Kansas City, works at a restaurant hilariously named The Lord of the Wings, cares for William, and is expecting his first child with his wife Tammy. We never see Tammy but we learn that she is not black. During the course of the play she gives birth to a son.
Malcolm, as described earlier, has pursued a college education, and has a thirst for knowledge and ambitions to make a difference. It is clear that William and Sonia’s dreams came true and they did indeed raise children who made them happy and proud. William is obviously equally proud of both of his sons in spite of the very different paths they have taken in life.
Ennis wants Malcolm to stay in Kansas City and help him care for William. William wants Malcolm to make his own choice. Malcolm wants to do right by everyone, which is, of course, impossible.
The one option playwright Nathan Louis Jackson doesn’t raise for Malcolm in his poignant and amusing family drama Broke-ology is the possibility of postponing his graduate work until after his father is safely taken care of. Dreams postponed, especially for good reasons like repaying the love and care an elderly parent has lavished on you, are not dreams denied. But this scenario is not explored, and the plot satisfactorily unwinds itself without it.
All three of the King men are stuck – in disease (William), in poverty (Ennis), in an impossible personal/moral dilemma (Malcolm) – and in the end William takes action to unstick them.
We see Sonia once more, when she appears to William in what may be a dream or hallucination, or may be a brush with that mysterious other side of existence to which we all eventually go.
Director Thomas Kail has assembled an excellent cast. They each make their characters believable and appealing. No one is the hero or the villain here, they are just average folks trying to make it through life, which is not easy in modern American culture which strongly denies that death and mourning, or the stresses of childbirth and infant care, are natural parts of existence which do effect people’s ability to cope.
The title, Broke-ology is the name of a “science” invented by Ennis to study the manner in which poor people survive and the effect poverty has on them. Ennis may not have the college degree, but he is plenty smart and very funny. He describes several other –ologies he’s discovered, and each explanation is clever and challenging.
It is nice to see a play about brothers and a father who get along well and genuinely like each other. No one has abused anyone, there is no big climactic scene in which one brother accuses his father or sibling of ruining his life. No one feels he is to blame for Sonia’s death. William, Ennis, and Malcolm respect each other and enjoy nothing better than sharing a good game of “Bones” (aka Dominoes). Jackson provides a Bones/Dominoes vocabulary in the program which is illuminating and entertaining. I just don’t understand the rationale behind slamming the game pieces down on the table. I’m all for healthy ways to express anger and the competitive spirit, but it makes all the dominoes already in play jump off the table and get all mixed up. Maybe it’s a guy thing.
There is another, inanimate, character in the play, a three foot tall plaster garden gnome who Ennis and Malcolm “liberate” from a neighbor’s yard. Manufactured Caucasian, he has been painted to look like a black gnome – he’s “in-cog-negro” as Ennis says. The boys call him Stubby but William calls him Chauncey. All three men have very amusing interactions with the little fellow – notably when William “gets all Soul Train” with him to The Temptations’ Just My Imagination – and in the final scene he is returned to his rightful owner.
Set designer Donyale Werle has perfectly captured the look of a well loved and well lived modest post-war American family home, right down to that mottled brown mid-pile carpet. I loved that the edges of the set looked as if the walls of the house had been sawed through to remove the fourth wall with little piles of insulation and dust nestled between the studs between the ceiling and second story floor, and the inner and outer walls. The Kings loved this house and it loved and insulated them.
The performance I attended was plagued by recalcitrant props – a table lamp that kept falling over and a white board that came crashing off of the refrigerator during a tense dramatic moment. In each case the cast handled the distraction naturally and completely in character. Hey, in real life lamps do fall over and it’s not the end of the world.
Emily Rebholz has provided satisfyingly realistic costumes. I liked how Malcolm dressed just a little bit more “Connecticut” than Ennis and William. And Sonia did look gorgeous in that green dress – just like William described her (well, I know she was the embodiment of his memory, but still, she looked great.) My only quibble was that the lettering on Ennis’ “Lord of the Wings” work shirt was too faded. I know in real life such a shirt would be well washed and worn, but this is the theatre and that’s such a neat joke that it should have been more obvious and visible to the audience.
Broke-ology is another import from the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston which the new WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin helmed until recently. The play received its initial reading there this past April, and only made the 2008 WTF line-up when plans to present another show on the Nikos Stage fell through. Jackson is fully aware of how lucky he is that his play is having its World Premiere in Williamstown, and he has hopes that the show will move on from here. This version is the second major retelling of a story Jackson obviously holds dear, and while it needs a few tweaks (I would be interested to learn whether the earlier version ended the same way) I think its overall charm and warm-hearted simplicity will ensure a strong future for Broke-ology.
Broke-ology runs through July 20 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission. There is a lot of colloquial vulgarity, and some moments where William has health crises that would be scary for young children, so I recommend this one for ages 14 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008