Broke-ology, Theater Alliance’s inaugural production at the Anacostia Playhouse, is a celebration of ensemble work. There was no barrier between the stage and the audience or between the characters’ emotions and ours. Absorbing the play was not an intellectual exercise; it was purely emotional. This was the magic brought to the Anacostia Playhouse by the entire team involved in Broke-ology. Every member of the team deserved the long standing ovation at the end of the evening. I believe that you will give it the same honor when you see it.
Nathan Louis Jackson’s play, set in Kansas City, Kansas, is a rich examination of the inner-workings of a poor family. Each member is faced with struggles about how to make it in hard times – and whether their true allegiance should lie with the family or getting what they personally want. Traditionally, it is played by an all African American cast, and the same is true of this production. But as a private look inside the emotional functioning of a family, Broke-ology could be applicable to any race and almost any economic status.
Director Candace Feldman, (along with Assistant Directors Mark Hairston and Julien Elijah Martinez), ensures that the ensemble does not overplay their roles. The emotions are proportionate and real, thereby evoking real reactions by myself and members of the audience. One woman I spoke to after the show remarked that she never cries at plays since they were ‘make-believe,’ but that she was brought to tears several times during this performance. I was too.
The ensemble consists of four exceptional actors: G. Alverez Reid (William, the father), Tricia Homer (wife Sonia), and 20-something siblings Jacobi Howard (Ennis) and Marlon Russ (Malcolm). They work together seamlessly, passing focus and working off each other’s emotions.
Walking into the theater space, one is greeted by the specter of Sonia busy tending to the home set designed by Harlan Penn. The scene, completed by Sonia’s presence, made us feel that we were settling in for an evening with a family, not watching a stage with four actors. Harlan Penn’s work, which extends the traditional living room/kitchen staging of the play to include wings with a stairs to the second floor, both a front and back door and a window. The lighting, designed by John D. Alexander, is used effectively to show the passing of time by the nature of the light coming through the kitchen window and back door. Sound Designer Marcus Darnley’s work is flawless. I was especially moved by Darnley’s use of music that accompanied the first scene between Sonia and William. It effectively served as a reminder of William’s constant dream of having her alive and at his side.
Tricia Homer is luminescent as Reid’s wife Sonia. She appears only three times and each time she is alone with her husband. But in each instance, her love remains strong and her presence grows both more loving and intense.
Reid plays a nuanced role as the father. While mourning the loss of his wife 15 years ago, he remains the strong guiding hand of a father. His depiction of a man trying to reunite the family while dying of MS is masterful. His only wishes are to be reunited with his dead wife and to bring the remaining family closer.
The interaction between siblings Ennis and Malcolm provide both powerful and subtle performances. Ennis has remained in Kansas City, working as a cook and dropping in to see his father. He takes care of him as he becomes more less able to care for himself. Ennis feels stuck with no hope of relief. Malcolm, on the other hand, has “escaped” to college and a Masters degree He is torn between staying home with his father and accepting a position to work with his mentor in Connecticut. Nevertheless, he is unable to decide whether to stay in close proximity to home or follow his academic dreams.
At times, Russ is so convincing as the ‘holier-than-thou’ Malcolm – that his overly-intellectual affect made me want to slap him upside the head. The distinction between Ennis and Malcolm is emphasized by Costume Designer Reggie Ray’s choice of clothing. Ennis is dressed in the manner of his father: casual jeans and a white T-shirt covered by an open plaid shirt. Malcolm maintains a wardrobe of a preppy Connecticut academic. His supposedly higher status was subtly highlighted by makeup which made him appear to havelighter skin than William and Ennis. Clearly, Ennis inherited the same smarts as Malcolm but never had the opportunity to apply them.
The most poignant moment of the evening for me is when Howard (as Ennis) lovingly administers a pain relieving med into his father’s arm while Malcolm sits across the room from the two, blanching and turning away while cringing. He clearly cannot absorb the reality of every day maintenance of his father and the fealty to the family that this simple action embodies. It’s powerful acting by Howard.
Broke-ology, explained DC Theater Alliance Artistic Director Colin Hovde, is but one step in sharpening the Alliance’s focus to developing, producing, and presenting socially conscious, thought-provoking work. He envisions theater as an art form that can fully engage the community in active dialogue.
With Broke-ology, Theater Alliance is off to a wonderful start in its new home, and with this fine production, that active dialogue has begun.
Runnng Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Broke-ology plays though September 8, 2013 at Theater Alliance at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.
On August 23rd, August 30th, and September 6th, there will be moderated talkbacks about the themes and issues raised.
On September 8th, the playwright Nathan Louis Jackson, will attend the final performance of Broke-ology.
On the 9th, Theater Alliance will host a reading of one of Mr. Jackson’s newer works, When I Come to Die, followed by a post-reading conversation with the playwright.