Solid Performance, Predictable Story: Broke-ology at Seattle Public Theatre

Photo by Paul Bestock
Photo by Paul Bestock

Published at TheSunbreak.com

Ever since the economic decline (you know, the one that’s going for so long that we’re kind of numb to it except we realize that we have to buy the value pack of chicken ramen instead of real chicken), theaters have been pushing the financial sufferings of families. Insert something clever about having to pay $60 for tickets to see a play about economic hardships here. The commonality between these shows — aside from the theme of a family that suffers together sticks together — has been the sheer dominance of the white, middle class family, economic struggle seemingly erasing any POC experience from our stages. Broke-ology by Nathan Louis Jackson at Seattle Public Theatre (through October 20; tickets) at least shakes up our theatrical routine by showing a family of color, though there’s nothing new added to the already persistent economic family hardship storyline.

Expertly directed by (oh-my-god-I-have-such-a-crush-on-you-even-though-I-know-you’re-way-out-of-my-league) Valerie Curtis Newton, Broke-ology centers on the King family. An aging, sickly patriarch (Troy Allen Johnson) steers us through grief, senility, and a house that no one wanted to stay in forever. While the themes may be more in line with economic failure, the meat of the play is what to do with a forgetful, dying father. Though this storyline shows some promise, from there we walk the well-trod path of a solid, though predictable, production.

As any true disappointment knows, in practically every family (especially in dramatic representation) there’s a college kid (“good” son), and a not bad, but not as well off “troubled” son.  In this case our troubled son, Ennis (Corey Spruill), is working a crappy food service job and has a baby on the way. Also typical of this storyline, the “good” son, Malcolm (Tyler Trerise)  has a choice afforded to him because he graduated college, while the troubled kid is stuck. Broke-ology tries to flip this idea by making the argument that Malcolm is stuck too, but in reality we know that having choices, no matter how difficult, is not the same as having none. At the epicenter is a dying father the brothers are trying to keep alive while knowing neither can afford to act as caretaker for him.

The cast is solid, with Spruill at the helm keeping the energy and pace up (scenes he’s not in tend to drag). And Johnson has some truly wonderful moments as he contemplates his own future in the home he’s made. However, what hurts the pace of this production more than anything is the writing of a character we neither need, nor that serves the story — Sonia King, the dead wife and mother, played by Amber Wolfe Wollam. Though I hate advocating the deletion of a female character, and Wollam plays her well, there is no need to have the mother “haunt” Allen physically. Her presence only seems an attempt to force more of an emotional bond with the family — an unnecessary bond  to form, since there is never any question about the love the sons have for each other and their father.

Further, as the play progresses, she becomes only a symbol of Allen’s decaying mind, rather than a character of substance actually required to tell the story. (Though problematic and unnecessary, the beautifully staged time transition from before any children are born to the much later time post-mother’s death communicates in an instant the loss of a parent and loved one. Credit due to Wollam, Johnson, and Newton on that lovely bit of storytelling.)

So what do we have? It’s another solid play about family economics, but one that has yet to actually provide new information about the struggle to carry on through difficulty. This isn’t just a problem with Broke-ology, it’s a problem with all the plays written during and post-economic collapse that try to humanize and characterize our day-to-day difficulty but fail to say anything other than we’re still floating; we’ll carry on. Great. But can the next play Seattle produces about this topic have more bite, especially when you have stellar cast and director?

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