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Publication: Syracuse New Times
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 58875
ISSN: 0893844X
Journal code: SYNT

True Colors

Fraternal frictions within a black family create drama and humor in Broke-ology

Poverty, taken on the whole, might well be a better generator of art than has been affluence. In the theater we're used to the impoverished playwright with a chip on his shoulder, like Clifford Odets in Waiting for Lefty or John Osborne in Look Back in Anger. For Nathan Louis Jackson, who grew up in the crack-ridden ghetto of Kansas City, Kan., the shabbier of two cross-river cities with the same name, economic want begets compassion and humor. In his semiautobiographical Broke-ology, now at Ithaca's Kitchen Theatre Company, we learn how to confront an expected death and to breach a simmering sibling rivalry.

More than 50 years after the opening of A Raisin in the Sun, we are again dealing with one of the most common themes in African-American theater: the fraying of a black family. The King family might be poor, but they are not angry. In the first scene, set in 1982, we meet tall, ethereal Sonia (Ronica V. Reddick), who is visibly pregnant, and her grounded, hard-working husband William (Alexander Thomas). Although their kitchen is brightly decorated, we can see bars against thieves on the window.

The couple banters. William grouses about telling children about Santa Claus. He wants any offspring to know that gifts they receive come from the love and labor of parents, not a fantastical, fat white man. We get that William wants his children to grasp pedestrian truth and not be misled by gaudy illusion, but a particularly sweet illusion will eventually be offering him comfort.

The next scene jumps forward to summer 2008, which happens to be when Broke-ology premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires. That date stayed the same when the play made its critically acclaimed debut at Lincoln Center, and so it is here in Ithaca. That way the child Sonia was bearing, Malcolm (Ohene Cornelius), the voice of the playwright, can be 26 in all the action in the "present."

When a black family names a first-born son "Malcolm," it signals its intentions. Much will be expected of the young man, and he delivers. On scholarship he attends the University of Connecticut, where he earns not one but two degrees. He has just returned home to take a summer job with the Environmental Protection Agency, the nobly intentioned but fairly unremunerative federal office. He hints that he has his eye on bigger game back East at the end of the summer, as well as a girl named Brittany.

The younger son, Ennis (Chad Carstarphen), has not fared as well. "Ennis" is not a common name; perhaps Jackson wants us to remember the ill-fated son of Bill Cosby. We can see from the skew of his lid at his entrance that this Ennis is no yuppie. Stuck working in a fast-food joint called "Lord of the Wings," he's gotten his girlfriend pregnant, and she will give birth as the action unfolds.

Whatever Ennis lacks in worldly attainment, he makes up for with rhetorical flourish. Cocky and buoyant, he delivers most of the show's best lines, especially in the first act. The phrase "broke-ology" is his coinage, a defensive response to the demanding-sounding courses of study that Malcolm has taken. It means that he argues he has given himself an education in trying to survive without much money in his pocket. The cliché for that used to be, "the school of hard knocks."

Despite Jackson's infatuation with the phrase, it's a trifle misleading. The clean refrigerator in their tidy kitchen has plenty of food. There's none of the despair Maxim Gorky chronicled in The Lower Depths, seen in February at the Syracuse University Drama Department.

Ennis' humor may be cheeky but it's not aggressive, and does not seem to bear any relationship with black comics of the last two generations, like Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy. In all the dialogue there is a gentle mockery of black nationalism and black piety, something along the line of what Sherman Alexie delivers to Native Americans, as in the 1998 movie Smoke Signals. When Ennis slips and speaks of a soul brother with the N-word, he obediently repeats, "I will always respect my people," promising not to sin again.

The threat facing the King family is neither racial nor economic. Paterfamilias William is deteriorating physically and mentally before his sons' eyes, and neither boy is sure how to respond. Multiple sclerosis is gradually taking over William's body, effectively communicated by actor Alexander Thomas' almost mime-like stiffening. Director Rachel Lampert, who has been a dancerchoreographer, is adept at portraying gradations in the father's decline. We don't have to look at a watch to see how his clock is ticking away. Additionally, Jackson contrived visual metaphors, like having William cut himself, spurting scarlet blood on his shirt.

William's mental deterioration is treated entirely differently. Eventually, we realize that Sonia has died 15 years before the action in the present, but when we see her ghost chatting with her husband and comforting him, it is first through his eyes. This is Jackson's most ambitious conceit and may well have been inspired by the flights of magical realism found in many August Wilson plays, such as Gem of the Ocean. The flesh-and-blood actor that other characters do not "see" is usually a comic convention, as in Topper or Blithe Spirit.

In her performance as Sonia, the presence of Ronica V. Reddick, a Syracuseborn actress (she grew up on the South Side's Fernwood Avenue) with extensive national credits, makes all the difference. As she showed in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's bizarre comedy Boom at Kitchen Theatre in March 2011, Reddick can project the otherworldly with a twist of the neck and thrust of the chin.

A second device, in which William delivers lengthy soliloquies to a lawn ornament stolen by the boys, something like the Travelocity gnome in blackface, works less well. Chalk it up as a novice playwright's bad gambit. But a third, in which the boys and their father engage in heated games of dominos, brings out feeling not expressed elsewhere. Then there are those punctuating slams of the tiles. Who knew that blacks were so keen on dominos or that the board game allows for more conversation than poker, bridge, checkers or chess.

In the end, Broke-ology upends expectations all the way. It's a sibling rivalry without blood, and ghetto drama without profanity. Compassion triumphs. Straight men, too, may love one another.

White woman director Rachel Lampert's empathy with black America qualifies her as a soul sister. In selecting the cast, she summoned Kitchen favorite Alexander Thomas back from Germany, where he now lives, to give the required depth to father William. Newcomer Chad Carstarphen realizes all of Ennis' comic potential without stealing from the other three. Ohene Cornelius' Malcolm is smart without being priggish. Beyond the performances, David L. Arsenault's set reveals much about the family's habits, while Lisa Boquist's costume designs include togs described in the script that can't be found in the stores. t

This production runs through April 22. See Times Table for information.

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