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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Original Review, also by Elyse Sommer
Mr. Jackson has tapped into his own family roots for this play about a black family living in a lower middle class neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas. Like Miller's The Price this is a realistic, kitchen sink style drama that focuses on two brothers, one who has managed to get an Eastern university education. Unlike Miller's family, or for that matter most characters populating dramas from times past and through this year's Pulitzer-prize winning August: Osage County, the Kings are not dysfunctional. No one in this family can be accused of selfish, hostile or uncaring behavior.
The only thing the King family is guilty of is being trapped by socioeconomic circumstances and not being able to sidestep the devastating multiple sclerosis that currently afflicts William (Wendell Pierce), or the illness (probably cancer) that killed his beloved wife Sonia (April Yevette Thompson—now Crystal Dickinson) when Malcolm (Gaius Charles-- now Alano Miller) was about twelve and Ennis (Francois Battiste) just a few years older —but not before passing on her spirit and ambitions for a richer, more imaginative life to her boys. That legacy gave Malcolm the drive to earn two degrees and win admission to graduate school as a student in environmental sciences and microeconomics. Ennis's take on his brother's fields of endeavor is something he calls "broke-ology" or the study of being broke and staying alive. He picks up on this during one of the Kings' customary times to relax over a game of dominos, refers to himself as a " Dominologist."
What gives this young playwright his own unique voice and style derives from the way he injects humor into the decision making crisis that overarches the summer of Malcolm's return to Kansas to work for the local EPA and help care for his sick father, plus the very contemporary dialogue of his characters (especially the "trash talk" that helps Domino players to release their tensions and aggression). Broke-ology is not a bang-bang-bang drama. It's a slowly built portrait of a family whose history consists of highs (the joy of a first child about to be born, of being in love) and lows (the persistent and at times critical shortage of money that keeps them from leaving a working class black neighborhood with its share of criminals and crack users, not to mention Sonia's death and now William's MS).
The fact that the brothers obviously like and love each other intensifies the emotional impact of the growing socioeconomic divide between them. And you don't have to to be African-American to identify and sympathize with Malcolm and Ennis, or the father's conflicting neediness and determination not to spoil his children's lives.
Thomas Kail, who made a big splash as the director of the Tony Award winning musical In the Heights, proves himself equally adept at drawing nuanced performances from actors in a straight play. Under his direction, the story moves organically from its flashback to the early days of William and Sonia's marrige, with Ennis a toddler and Malcolm soon to be born, forward to the same cluttered living room/kitchen but with Sonia dead and Ennis and Malcolm now grown. The action focuses on a summer during which Malcom must choose between his dream and his responsibility to his father. The illusionary appearances of Sonia are handled with particular sensitivity. Also handled with finesse are the frequent scene changes. Though most end with the lights going down, they are not blackouts but fadeouts which never leave you in doubt about just how much time has elapsed by the time the lights go on again.
The actors playing the King men couldn't be better. Both Battiste and Gaius nail the sibling relationship and the differences threatening it. Battiste has the more difficult job of portraying the older brother who has gotten stuck in a job in a restaurant that he hates but can't quit because he's married and a new father. Like his father before him he loves his wife, but he strains at the responsibility and knowledge that like William he's unlikely to ever leave the "Hood" and the day to stay struggles it represents. Battiste has one especially powerful scene in which he edits the facts about how he responded to his boss's insistence that he work on his day off.
Wendell Pierce, an actor with a mellifluous voice, breaks your heart as the stubbornly independent, lonely father. He is also delightfully funny when he sings and dances along to an old tape. April Yvette Thompson, who last season had a well received Off-Broadway run in her own one-woman show, has the smallest role as the mother whose face Malcolm remembers less than the smell of the pancakes she used to make.
The designers have done an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of the King home. The house (which the family probably doesn't even own) is proof that there's been little money to spruce things up over the years. And yet it's a home and not a house, a place where much living and loving has taken place.
Coming as it does from the pen of a still emerging playwright, Broke-ology points to skills Jackson still needs to refine, notably the tendency to telegraph things too obviously. At times, the words he puts into an uneducated character's mouth seem misplaced; for example, William's telling his son that whatever he chooses to do "regret is not an option" is a powerful statement but seems not quite right coming from this simple man.
An equally apt title for this play might have been Stuck. The Kings are people stuck by the blows dealt by economics, race and life. Ennis is stuck in a dead-end job and a too early marriage. Malcolm is stuck between fulfilling the dream that might just help him make a difference in neighborhoods like the one he grew up in, and making his father's illness and his brother's caregiving easier. William is stuck wanting the best for his sons and needing their help. His repeated dream about being in a sinking rowboat and only able to save one person sums up the essence of this all too familiar social dilemma.
I'll leave it to you to find out for yourself who, if anyone, is saved, and how. One thing I will tell you is that these characters will stick in your mind long after you've left the theater.
Broke-ology by Nathan Louis Jackson
Directed by Thomas Kail
Cast (In Order of Appearance: Wendell Pierce (William King), April Yvette Thompson (Sonia King), Francois Battiste (Ennis King), Gaius Charles (Malcolm King)
Set design: Donyale Werle
Costume design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting design: Mark Simpson
Sound design: Jill BC DuBoff
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, including one intermission