Broke-Ology by Nathan Louis Jackson. Directed by Thomas Kail.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Love me, like you always have, okay?"
Wendell Pierce as William King
Family dramas like "Death of a Salesman," "The Glass Menagerie," even "Gypsy" attempt to show us the universal elements in the personal drama. August Wilson has been the king of these plays for the past two decades, exploding the myths of difference for the universal audience, bringing the black experience into the stark white light of mainstream theater. Now the Williamstown Theatre Festival is going Wilson one better, presenting a new play by Nathan Louis Jackson about a black family in Kansas City, Kansas that is literally performing an Arthur Miller melodrama.
William King, in the very very present, is suffering from MS. His two sons are there to help him into the limbo of whatever the next step may be for him, whether it is solitude, assisted living or something starker. The sons, Ennis the elder and Malcolm the younger, disagree violently about Dad and his future and each of their stakes in his continuing alive. Ennis lives nearby, with a young wife and a baby on the way. His lifestyle is no better than his fatherís; he works in a short-order "wings" establishment. Malcolm lives in a college environment in Connecticut, about as distant from his brotherís and his fatherís lifestyles as possible. He wants to return to that life but is emotionally, and morally, torn up by his fatherís illness and his delicate state.
In the course of the two hours of this play, William slits his throat, sets himself afire and overdoses on pain killer drugs. He also has a bizarre eye infection that causes him to wear a large black eye-patch. This play is, by the way, a comedy and quite a funny one too. The serious stuff that keeps the dramatic line going is never far from the surface in this show, but the comedy holds it at bay for much of the time.
That comedy is emphasized by Williamís long-dead wife, Sonia, a beautiful woman who clearly adored her family. Itís humor and pathos is also brought to the surface through the game of dominoes, a simple game that has been a substantial part of the family dynamic for the Kings. In a way, dominoes drives the bus here. The game is competitive, skillful, and can result in a crumbling of facades and the tricky assembling of the building blocks that create the patterns of these menís lives.
"If it ainít broke, donít fix it," goes the old maxim. Broke-Ology takes that concept a step further to "It is broke, but you canít fix it, not even with a newly found philosophy." Here we have empty promises unfulfilled, not because of a false sense of truth, but simply due to the inescapable truth that men are limited in what they can achieve. Not every King gets to be king.
Wendell Pierce is powerful, varied and considerably charming as William King. He manages his physical alterations from MS victim to sturdy young man with ease and a believability that is astounding to see. April Yvette Thompson, his Sonia, has a smile that illuminates the stage and a personality to match it. Her scenes are played with honesty and gusto and a vivacity not seen hereabouts for a long while. The joy she brings to the role and through it to the proceedings is nothing short of miraculous.
Wendell Pierce and April Yvette Thompson
Francois Battiste as Ennis and Gaius Charles as Malcolm
Francois Battiste is Ennis, the older son with the domestic problems. He often redirects attention to himself through a gesture, a head toss, a glitter of ear-ring, a special moment. He does it without distracting from the play, but he does it. His Ennis is endearing and at the same time hard to like. He is highly competitive, jealous of the life his brother leads, jealous of the love his parents shared, jealous of his own child for the attention he warrants. Still, he is very human and very likeable. Every choice the playwright has made for this character resonates with honesty whether it is his playful childishness or his petulant young adulthood.
Gaius Charles plays Malcolm, the son who has come home and wants to go away again. Charles plays the pain in this character with a careful awareness of what would be too much, too far, too difficult for an audience to handle. He hovers on the edge at times, nearly maudlin, but never dreary. It is a difficult part to play and he often seems to be living it more than playing it. The play consistently addresses his difficult choice: stay or go, giving him a center-stage position in the writing, but even though it would seem to be a play about the son, it really is the father, William King, the black Willie Loman, who is the character to consider. From first to last this is Willís play.
Thomas Kail has done a wonderful job with this double quartet - characters and actors. There is not a false moment anywhere. It would be nice to see more of Sonia, but the drama in the play exists without her.
Donyale Werle has conceived the perfect setting for this family entanglement and Emily Rebholz understands the clothing, designing both period, place and station in life. Mark Simpson has done a splendid job with the lights. A delicious dance sequence has not been choreographed, it would seem, so it may be that Kail and Pierce, between them, have worked it out.
This play should have a life after this brief appearance locally. If you donít see it here, find it somewhere else and hope for the same cast. I canít imagine a better one.
Broke-Ology plays at the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through Sunday, July 20. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.