There is nothing fancy about “Broke-ology,” a quietly forceful play by Nathan Louis Jackson, having its local premiere at Seattle Public Theater in conjunction with the Hansberry Project.
The plot could not be simpler, or more emblematic of “kitchen sink” family drama: In the modest inner-city Kansas City home where they grew up, two African-American brothers reunite. One is fresh out of graduate school; the other works overtime at a fast-food joint and his wife is expecting.
The siblings catch up, josh around, spar over a game of dominoes. But they also worry, and clash, over how to help their father, a retired widower increasingly debilitated by multiple sclerosis.
Which son will care for their dad, William (Troy Allen Johnson)? His educated son Malcolm (Tyler Trerise) would sacrifice a big career opportunity in another state to do so. But if he doesn’t, the load falls on Ennis (Corey Spruill), already overburdened with a family and a dead-end job that barely pays the bills — but an expert in being broke.
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The dilemma running through “Broke-ology” is common to many adults “sandwiched” between the needs of frail parents, and other demands.
What makes Jackson’s take on a familiar situation meaningful is the way this slow-going but sincere, direct, often humorous play personalizes it, within characters who are realistically drawn individuals rather than sociological specimens.
Particularly compelling in Valerie Curtis-Newton’s insightful staging, on Craig Wollam’s homey, lived-in set, is the plight of Ennis, played by Spruill with an electric blend of charm, ferocity and despair. Still stuck in the ’hood, fearing he’ll never escape it, he’s a bright, decent guy swimming in stress.
Ennis is as street-smart as Malcolm (whom Ennis both admires and resents) is book-smart. But as in many cash-strapped clans, not everyone gets that golden ticket to college and upward mobility.
Spruill is terrific. But he comes on so strong, his dialogue is so punchy and colorful, he can at times nearly suck all the oxygen of a scene — in part because Trerise’s earnest Malcolm is less defined. The dynamic between them should develop, as the run continues.
But as “Broke-ology” moves into Act 2, and gains force, it is William who comes to the fore.
A gentle, good-natured “honest Joe,” who worked hard for his family, William loves his boys and misses his long-dead wife, Sonia, (Amber Wolfe Wollam) — so much so, he communes with her ghost. (These interludes are sweetly flirtatious and comforting, not macabre.)
Johnson also impressively conveys William’s physical decline, as he gets more tremulous, unsteady on his feet and in pain. Poignantly, the man never indulges in self-pity or guilt-tripping. And in his unassuming way, he becomes a heroic figure in a bittersweet ending that’s a gift to his sons, and to himself.
The hard-won nobility of a “common man” was once a ubiquitous theme in American theater and film — in sentimental melodramas, but also in such landmark works as Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
That motif can look romanticized, hackneyed to us today. In “Broke-ology” it just feels true.
Misha Berson: email@example.com