November 7, 2009

There's True Value in "Broke-ology"

The folks at Lincoln Center aren’t selling a cast album for Broke-ology, the new family drama by Nathan Louis Jackson, but maybe they should.  The show isn’t a musical but disco-era tunes by Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang and McFadden & Whitehead are playing when you walk into The Mitzi E. Newhouse theater where the show is running through the end of the month.  The twentysomething woman in the seat next to me mouthed all the lyrics.  “Aren’t you too young to know these songs?” I asked.  She laughed.  “It’s good stuff,” she said. 

And it is.  Disco music often gets dismissed as superficial but hearing those songs took me back to the ‘late ‘70s and early ‘80s when disco anthems like McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now” expressed an against-the-odds optimism about the future of black people in this country.  The play took me back too.  And not just because the opening scene is set in 1982.  The entire play reminded me of the shows I used to see at the Negro Ensemble Company during those years. Edgier shows by playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Suzan-Lori Parks are now more popular than the black family dramas that were the NEC’s specialty but there was good stuff in those old shows and there’s some good stuff in Broke-ology too. 

The play tells the story of the working-class King family. The Kings are a loving, not dysfunctional, family but internal fractures and outside pressures strain their bonds. The show’s title is drawn from the eldest son’s joking suggestion that there should be an academic field devoted to “the study of being broke.”

When the play opens, parents-to-be William and Sonia are awaiting the birth of their first child and dreaming about making a better life beyond the Kansas City ghetto where they live. The next scene takes place 27 years later.  Sonia has been dead for 10 years, William is battling multiple sclerosis, the eldest son Ennis is trapped in a dead-end job and expecting his first child, and the youngest son Malcolm is returning home from college with a master’s degree and ambitions of his own.

The conflicts develop quickly and predictably but the show’s 30 year-old playwright, who admits that the play is partly autobiographical (click here to read his story) knows that love and resentment exist in equal measure in most families and that envy and encouragement stand side-by-side in poor families where one member has the chance of making it out but only at the expense of the equally-deserving others.  Broke-ology is at its best when it clicks into those moments. 

It’s also blessed with a fine cast.  Wendell Pierce and Crystal A. Dickinson are wonderfully touching as the parents.  Alano Miller captures the awkward self-consciousness of a young man simultaneously eager and reluctant to enter a middle-class life that means leaving his family behind. And Francois Battiste, who was terrific in last season’s production of The Good Negro at the Public Theater, is just as dynamic as the brother who knows that he will be the collateral damage of his younger sibling’s success.

This isn’t a great play. It veers into melodrama and indulges in some heavy-handed symbolism.  But it also portrays contemporary working-class people with an authenticity and respect too seldom seen on stage.  And, in my book, that makes it good stuff.

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