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Broke-ology, the 2008 debut of playwright Nathan Louis Jackson, is a tender, quietly revelatory tale of a family struggling against poverty, ill health, grief, and looming obligation. As Theater Alliance’s first production in the new, 150-seat Anacostia Playhouse, it’s a calculated choice, but a sound one: Though Jackson has since moved on to more political plays (and to writing for TV dramas like Southland and Lights Out), this is an easily embraceable if ultimately somber story of a strong African-American family living in a tough neighborhood and doing its best to get by. The play is set in Jackson’s native Kansas City, Kan., which is separated by a river from its more prosperous neighbor, Kansas City, Mo. Sound like any place we know?
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The have and have-not divide exists even within the living room where the action, such as it is, unfolds. Twentysomething brothers Ennis and Malcolm both worry about their father, William, who has multiple sclerosis and has begun to suffer household injuries when left alone. Ennis, who is trying nobly to erase the N-word from his vocabulary now that he and his girlfriend are expecting their first child, feels trapped in his dead-end restaurant job. But Malcolm has an advanced degree and a compelling offer to work with one of his favorite professors back east. His deliberations over whether to stay and help Ennis care for their pop, or to pursue the kind of opportunity no one else in his family has been afforded, is the narrative engine that drives the piece, albeit at an unhurried pace.
Harlan Penn’s set, from the frayed coverings on the arms of the sofa to the iron bars on the windows, looks believably cozy and lived-in. We get that this is a family that never let its humble means or its crackhead neighbors prevent it from taking pride in its home. When the three men sit at the kitchen table playing dominoes, there’s a warmth among them that’s tremendously appealing. So is that art? I’m not sure. If nothing else, director Candace L. Feldman deserves credit for making these scenes feel alive and not too freighted with intention.
As Ennis, Jacobi Howard gives the most natural performance, showing us a guy whose braggadocio and good humor—the play’s title refers to a dubious science Ennis claims to have invented to tease his college-boy brother—is beginning to buckle as he feels his future constricting. “All the things I want to do have taken a back burner to the things I have to do,” he tells Malcolm. Howard’s delivery isn’t self-pitying, just pragmatic. In the role of William, the barrel-chested, broad-shouldered G. Alverez Reid does a good job of conveying the fear and confusion of a man who always made a living with his hands, but whose body has at last begun to betray him.
Tricia Homer appears in a few scenes as Sonia, the devoted wife and mother who died when Ennis and Malcolm were young children. Her long-ago loss seems to haunt William more painfully as he feels himself drawing closer to death. In a prologue set decades before the play’s present, we meet Sonia and William as a happy young couple awaiting their first child. The scene felt saccharine to me as it played, but I was surprised at the spell it cast over the rest of the show, and the resonance it lent to later moments where Ennis contemplates, or bristles when invited to contemplate, his own impending fatherhood.
That’s a good illustration of how this production works on you: It’s unassuming but persistent, and when you feel moved to dismiss one of its writerly excesses, you find that you can’t.