In Broke-ology, a father, a widower, has medical problems, and his two sons attempt to cope with his increasing need for care while pursuing their own lives and interests. Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson has created a family drama and filled it with humor and humanity, so that what might have been dour becomes droll, and issues that might have been dealt with ponderously are instead handled with a game of dominoes.
The staging is realistic, kitchen-sink realistic, in fact, as the sink, the stove and the refrigerator provide a large part of the action. The setting is the home of an African-American middle-class family in Kansas City; it is comfortable without pretensions, and has been effectively designed by Janelle Flanagan. We first meet in the 1980s the father, William King, portrayed by Broderick "Brod J" Jones, along with his wife Sonia, portrayed by Autumn Knight, and we see the genesis of a tightly knit, loving family, and can savor the vitality of William as a relatively young man with an attractive, sensual wife.
The action then leaps forward 26 years, with William now verging on decrepit, but reluctant to admit his failings and still determined to do things for himself. His former vitality has been inherited by his two sons, Malcolm (Joe "Joe P" Palmore) and Ennis (L.D. Green). Malcolm is home from Connecticut for a visit, or perhaps for a longer stay -- that is one of the issues. And Ennis is in the process of becoming a father by his girlfriend -- that is another.
But the real issue is the declining health of William. Sonia is absent, and in time we learn that she died 15 years earlier. A large ceramic gnome is almost a fifth character, as William alone onstage addresses him often in Act Two; these passages are less interesting, but do permit the insertion of background information.
The charm of the comedic drama is that the actors playing the brothers create a real sense of family, and the camaraderie, competitiveness and bickering between these two are gripping and interesting -- I'd love to see them both in a long-running television series; they could carry the show. Jones as the father here has little chance to show much range, concentrating instead on his physical deterioration. And magic realism creeps in, as Sonia reappears to William in hallucinations.
This is one of those plays, increasingly prevalent, where a playwright references a problem without really addressing it. The pathos of the subject matter elicits a general feeling of empathy, and good feelings abound. Here, a secondary theme is also referenced to justify the title of Broke-ology -- shortness of money leads to compromises and restricted choices. Jackson has substantial credits to his name, but this play is poorly constructed and seems to go nowhere, except to a predictable, melodramatic and sentimental ending. He has a true gift for comedic expression, which may be why the Ensemble Theatre was motivated to produce it, but, from a theater as strong and professional as the Ensemble, it is a bit of a disappointment.
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It is well-directed by Eileen J. Morris, who has showcased the inspired vitality of the sons and found the appealing warmth in Sonia and the likability in William. Lighting by Kris Phelps is sensitive and adds dimension, especially in the hallucinatory scenes. The ending has a surprise and a corny special effect that undermines the poetry of the moment; Morris might rethink this, though the audience gasped with pleasure, as she no doubt intended.
Deft direction finds the rich humor in a close-knit African-American family coping with the deteriorating health of the widowed father. The play itself is a frail craft, but is paddled safely through shoals by the enormous vigor of two young and brilliant actors.
Broke-ology continues through April 14 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For ticketing or information, call 713-520-0055 or contact www.ensemblehouston.com.