Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-Ology at Williamstown Theatre Festival
A Black Family Rolls the Bones
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 11, 2008
By Nathan Louis Jackson; Directed by Thomas Kail, Sets, Donyale Werle; Costumes, Emily Rebholz; Lights, Mark Simpson, Sound, Jill BC DuBoff, Production Stage Manager, Brandon Kahn; Production Manager, Jim D'Asaro, Casting, MelCap Casting. Starring: William King (Wendell Pierce), Sonia King (April Yvette Thompson), Ennis King (Francois Battiste) and Malcolm King (Gaius Charles).
Williamstown Theater Festival, Nikos Stage, July 9 to 20, 2008
A father, William King (Wendell Pierce) and his sons Ennis (Francois Battiste) and Malcolm (Gaius Charles) are playing a game of dominos in their, cozy, cluttered, shabby but neat Kansas City home (a terrific set by Donayle Werle). There are bars on the windows to keep out the local crackheads. William, now ill and world weary, did his best with his deceased wife Sonia (April Yvette Thompson) to raise the boys as best they could.
There are high stakes in this seemingly friendly game. One they have played countless times through the years. When it is each player's move, a bone, or domino piece, is crashed down on the table. There is constant trash talk between the brothers as each tries to rattle, intimidate, and outwit the other.
The outcome of the game will determine whether Malcolm will stay in Kansas City, to care for their ailing father, or to return to Connecticut and graduate studies at U Conn. William is in the late stages of MS and through impaired sight, there is a patch over one eye, is ever less capable of managing to take a complex regimen of daily medications which "cost a lot of money and do no good." Ennis has been providing for their father but now has a baby and his own responsibilities. He is asking Malcolm to delay and perhaps give up his dreams.
While this is a play about black folks, what is particularly successful about this new drama is that it is really about any family. The language is raucous, and the range of emotion broadly presented, but at its heart is a conundrum that is all too familiar. Many in the audience may readily relate their own family issues of looking after elderly and infirm relatives. The burden of providing care so often falls unevenly on siblings and is the source of family tension.
Yes, this is black theatre, but, significantly, presented in the mainstream, lily white, upscale, bucolic setting of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Bravo for all concerned in making this decision. Reading the program notes it appears that this new play by Nathan Louis Jackson came into the schedule as a late substitution for another production that was cancelled.
For whatever reason, we are grateful to experience this play with its wonderful cast and heartwarming theme. The young playwright appears to owe a lot to the work of the late August Wilson who so altered thinking about contemporary theatre. In the credits of Wendell Pierce, who we knew from the great HBO series "The Wire," it appears that he was a producer for two of Wilson's Broadway shows "Radio Golf" and "Jitney." While artistic director of the Huntington Theater, Nicholas Martin presented the premieres of a number of plays by August Wilson. So it is not surprising, given that legacy, that at WTF Marrtin is reaching out to a new generation of gifted black playrights and actors.
While the family is comfortably black, and there are rather funny jokes about racism, they convey more humor than anger. This is not a play with a chip on its shoulder that preaches to or hectors the white audience. Rather we are drawn in and encouraged to care about the players as individuals facing real and poignant issues. Malcolm is accused by Ennis, who has remained at home and is smart but working menial jobs, of being too white. Ennis wants to know if there are any black people in Connecticut. It is not so much that Malcom is acting white but rather his education has opened up new possibilities. There is a flash point between the brothers over issues of identity and loyalty to family.
In the delusional state of illness and pain killing medications, William is hallucinating the presence of his deceased wife. She had appeared in the first scene while pregnant with the oldest boy. As a ghost, Sonia laments their faded hopes and dreams. The miserable home was just intended as temporary, at most for five years, but proved to be permanent. She had longed for a better home and neighborhood with the resultant better schools. They had struggled to mask poverty and privation from the boys and to offer them hope for a better life. One son thrived while the other did not.
Sensing that it is near the end, William is longing for Sonia. He has taken a box of stuff down from the attic. Sorting through the box evokes memories. Finding an old mix tape he plays it. In the best scene in the play, during the second act, William is inspired by a vintage Temptations song to break into an elaborate song and dance routine. It was pure soul man, even in the Berkshires, as Wendell Pierce, now middle aged, thick set, and not exactly light on his feet, got down and dirty with a funky groove. His dance companion was a black face, cement, garden gnome "Stumpy" which, as a prank, the boys stole from a neighbor. This sequence was both hilarious and deeply poignant. It revealed the chops of Pierce as a truly wonderful actor.
While Malcolm has thrived through education, Ennis conveys street smarts. He proclaims that he is a professor of "Broke-Ology" which is the academic discipline and science of all matters related to being broke. Malcolm, of course, challenges this ersatz science and demands to know its theories. This becomes the title of the play but I find it misleading. While it is a theme "Broke-Ology" is not really what this play is about. It seems more focused on the game of dominos which will decide the fate of the protagonists. A more apt title would have been "Bones."
Other than a "Bone" to pick, however, this was a richly satisfying evening of theatre. It speaks well for WTF that this kind of risk-taking is providing a wonderful sense of diversity and experimentation for Berkshire audiences.