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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center


  Francois Battiste, Wendell Pierce and Alano Miller/ Ph: T. Charles Erickson

Kansas may be grim and gray but, as we all know, there’s no place like home—unless you’re determined to escape, to explore the fantastic world out there in Oz… or, in the case of Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology, Connecticut.
But unlike “The Wizard of Oz,” Broke-ology, at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, doesn’t dwell on wizards, good witches and other flights of fancy. The patriarch, William King (Wendell Pierce), doesn’t even want to raise his children on Santa Claus, preferring instead they know their gifts come from their parents determination and hard work.
Broke-ology, a funny and moving but flawed play, is most refreshing in its focus on a black family for whom racial identity is vital yet secondary in the characters’ daily lives to the pull between individual, family and society and in the playwright’s themes to the struggles of class.
A brief opening scene in 1982 depicts William and his pregnant wife Sonia (Crystal A. Dickinson) dreaming big about their future. The scene meanders and feels banal but it gains poignancy as the action suddenly shifts to the present: Sonia has been dead for 15 years while William is stuck in the same worn-down house in the same downtrodden neighborhood of Kansas City. Worse, he is beset by multiple sclerosis. The action centers on how their two sons clash over how to handle William’s illness.
High-voltage Ennis (Francois Battiste) lives nearby and administers his father’s shots, but he’s about to become a father himself and is getting nagged by his wife (especially about his use of the “N" word—when he says it, he must repent by chanting, “I love black people” five times) and burned out by his dead-end job at a barbecue restaurant called Lord of the Wings. His first scene is a hilarious rant on his theory of “broke-ology,” the science of being broke and surviving.
That riff is dissected, however, by his younger brother, Malcolm (Alano Miller), who has just gotten his master’s degree at the University of Connecticut. Despite his love for his family and the sense of responsibility (and guilt) that he feels and that Ennis piles on, he yearns to return east to pursue contributing to society as an environmental activist, even if it means putting William in an assisted living home.
Some of the dialogue is stilted, and the relatively inexperienced Miller sometimes seems awkward in his role. Mostly, however, he, along with the charismatic Battiste and Pierce, who gives a finely tuned performance, feel like a family as they play dominoes and steal garden gnomes and reminisce about the time Sonia painted traditional Christmas figurines black out of ethnic pride only to have William shoot down the notion of black people hanging from a tree in their house. (“It would have been Ku Klux Christmas,” he cracks.)
The bond gives the arguments emotional heft. And while his characters may feel “stuck,” as they often complain in desperate situations beyond their control, this family is more Barack Obama than Reverend Wright in tone. The lack of anger over the lack of opportunity for William and then for Ennis gives potency to Malcolm’s struggle between obligations and ambitions, especially since his father disagrees with Ennis and encourages Malcolm to follow his dreams.
Although the final moment feels a bit contrived and melodramatic, the play offers plenty of naturalism, alternately funny and heart-wrenching, and Jackson has established himself as a playwright with a strong, clear voice from which we hope to hear more.

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