Broke-ology: the study of being broke and staying alive despite your brokenness.
The symptoms of being broke are endless sacrifice and feeling stuck. Coping mechanisms for being broke are humor and genius. The cures are education and death.
Nathan Louis Jackson’s play BROKE-OLOGY, directed at the Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca by artistic director Rachel Lampert, runs through April 22.
Set in a gang-run, poor neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan. BROKE-OLOGY is about family, fatherhood, regret and the choices people make surrounding the three. Brothers Ennis (Chad Carstarphen) and Malcolm (Ohene Cornelius) are caring for their father William (Alexander Thomas) who has been diagnosed with M.S. and is having vivid hallucinations of his late wife Sonia (Ronica Reddick). But Ennis, stuck in a dead end job at Lord of the Wings restaurant fears that he will not be able to continue to care for their father.
Ennis is relieved when his younger brother Malcolm, who has been in college in Connecticut (the whitest place on earth according Ennis), for the past four years comes back. What Ennis is not ready for is the tentative nature of Malcolm’s return and William does not want to be a burden to his sons.
The action takes place on a realistic set, designed by David L. Arsenault, that looks like a shrunken version of the living room from the television show Roseanne. The house looks stuck in time, as if it has not been upgraded since the last time a woman touched it, which was 15 years ago when William’s wife Sonia died from cancer. Even the family photos hanging on the mustard yellow walls are old, and the boys who are now men are playing the same games-- Sorry, Clue and Monopoly rest on the shelf-- and the family plays dominoes throughout.
The dominoes scenes are definitely the most poignant throughout the production. The chemistry among the cast is very real and natural, and evokes feelings of nostalgia for family game nights and the contentment that comes with just being home.
Thomas also has a number of scenes by himself and Sonia when the boys are gone. The play goes in and out of time as the father sees his wife in the 1980s as they are expecting their first baby, but this is unclear at first. At times it was hard to distinguish whether he was dreaming or hallucinating, even though it is in his hallucinations that the character sees clearly, despite losing his sight.
Thomas’ portrayal of William is very one note throughout much of the first act, creating disconnect between the actor and the character as written. William is a man whose body is aging faster than he is, but Thomas’ performance suggests that William has given in to being senile and helpless, despite what he says about wanting to be independent.
The second act was better than the first, because the stakes are higher and the tension is felt. William’s health is getting worse, Ennis is struggling to take care of his baby and Malcolm has not decided whether he is staying in Kansas or going back to Connecticut.
This is also where the script starts to dig into the question “what makes a good father?” Ennis resents fatherhood, but insists on providing for his child financially, while his own father was never able to provide enough to get them out of the ghetto, but has always been present.
Jackson’s script relies on text, not spectacle. His racial humor is more like inside jokes black people tell each other that white people are never meant to hear. He addresses the importance of reflecting blackness in Americana, despite poverty throughout the play in everything from talk of “greening” the hood through environmental awareness, black Santa Claus ornaments and a hilarious incident involving a black garden gnome.
He also deals with educational differences within a family very delicately. At one point Malcolm says of seeing an old friend from school “I’ve got two degrees; he’s got two kids. What are we going to talk about?”
However there is no sense that Malcolm is smarter than his father and brother because he went to college, but perhaps wiser. Ennis and William are never depicted being unable to match Malcolm's wit or intellect, because they are uneducated, they just do not have the same opportunity to escape poverty because they lack a formal education.