Broke-ology, in its New York debut following a successful run at the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival last summer, is an engaging domestic drama without the Sturm und Drang of an “August: Osage County” or a “Reasons to be Pretty,” to cite two recent examples. What comes to mind instead are old movies, plays, and television shows: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” “I Remember Mama,” or “The Goldbergs.” Like these antecedents, “Broke-ology” isn’t about much of anything. It is the everyday efforts of the characters to survive and make sense of life that provide the fodder for the storyteller, and it is the interplay among the characters that resonates with the audience.
Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson gives us just enough information so that we can picture in our minds the kind of working poor African American neighborhood and the circumstances that have shaped the lives of the King family—a middle aged father, his two grown sons, and the young men’s deceased mother who lives on in the family home as a memory/ghost. Sprinkled here and there within the dialog are tidbits of the outside world—that the neighborhood lies within the territory of the Crips street gang, that homes have been torn down and replaced with litter-strewn empty lots, even that it was cancer that took the life of the mother. None of this comes to us in boldface italics; he learn what we learn only if we pay attention.
The problems the Kings are struggling with are those of real life. The father, played with depth and honesty by Wendell Pierce, is gradually being ravaged by multiple sclerosis as well as his own increasing frustration at his lessening ability to care for himself. The two brothers—one of whom is striving to make ends meet and live up to the many obligations he is facing as he and his girlfriend are about to become parents—the other of whom is wrestling over whether he should stay to help his family or return to the home he has made for himself in Connecticut. The young men, played respectively by Francois Battiste (in a manner reminiscent of comedian Chris Rock) and Alano Miller, come off exactly as they should, brothers who share a history of familial memories yet who are somewhat alienated by the different paths their lives have taken.
Although the family’s name is “King,” and one of the sons is named “Malcolm King,” the historic references in the play generally are to the music that gave much pleasure to the father and mother, William and Sonia King (played with sassy style by Crystal A. Dickinson) when they were younger. Thoughts and dreams of his wife are what comfort William as he falls further into illness, and that he can conjure her up is a blessing for this man who may end his days in a poor quality nursing home.
Nathan Louis Jackson, a graduate of Juilliard, has been called an “emerging” young playwright; I believe he has already emerged and that he is already a talent to be reckoned with. Much love has been lavished on this production, and kudos go to the quartet of fine actors, director Thomas Kail, and set designer Donyale Werle. For an explanation of the title, you will need to check out “Broke-ology” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.