The Seattle premiere of Nathan Louis Jackson’s semi-autobiographical Broke-ology opens The Seattle Public Theater’s season and features many of the production qualities we have come to expect from this outstanding local group. The four-member cast skillfully presents one of the most tightly focused pieces I have seen in a long time. We have one set, one family and one overwhelming problem: who must make the sacrifices and what exactly should one sacrifice for his family to survive against the formidable realities of our current economic recession?
The younger brother Ennis King sets up the theme in the early moments of the play:
“Fried bologna times sidewalk sales plus minimum wage minus health insurance/adequate education equals Brokeness times being alive. Bam! Broke-ology baby!”
Ennis and his brother Malcolm are the responsibility of their single father, William. The family lost their mother to cancer years ago, and shoulders on without her. They live in a rough part of Kansas City, currently being ruled by the Crips. Ennis is about to become a father and feels trapped in a dead-end restaurant job. Malcolm has a chance to continue his academic work far away from home, but is fully aware of his responsibility to his father and brother.
The three characters are inextricably intertwined, and how they respond to their familial ties and obligations defines their characters.
Corey Spruill and Tyler Terise take on the young men roles. Spruill, the lighter spirit in the family, is a joy to watch on stage. His love and dedication to his father and brother are a constant; no matter what attitude he decides to cop in his confrontations with both. A number of scenes involve the father and sons playing dominoes in their kitchen; the love they share that lies just below their competitive banter is nearly palpable.
The show is in the capable hands of director Valerie Curtis-Newton who serves as both the artistic director of Hansberry Project and as head of performance at the U W’s School of Drama. She has been able to elicit some wonderfully thoughtful work from her cast. Amber Wolfe Wollam ably plays the mother. Troy Allen Johnson takes on the demanding role of the father of the house. He projects a quiet gentleness that is quite moving. Times are very tough for this family and a steady hand and head is required to keep them together and afloat. Johnson’s character can do all this with an unassuming dignity and charm that ground the entire production.
There are moments in the play when Curtis-Newton has her actors face directly out to the audience, staring into space to find the answers to the challenges that face a family barely hanging on in the lower middle class. We are all left to bring our own solutions to these overwhelming problems as we walk out of the theater.
The Seattle Public Theater presents Broke-ology at the Green Lake’s Bathhouse Theater. Scenic design by Craig Wollam, Lighting by Kent Cubbage, Sound by Harry Jamieson and Costumes by Melanie Burgess. Runs through October 20, with many shows offering post play discussions. Tickets at www.Seattlepublictheater.org or 206-524-1300.