Darius Dotch as Malcolm King, James Craven as William King and Mikell Sapp as Ennis King in the Pillsbury House Theatre production of Broke-ology
Photo by Michal Daniel
Broke-ology runs through April 10 at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. Here’s how the company describes the show:
Broke-ology tells the story of a loving family struggling to make ends meet. Malcolm is the first in his family to attend college, but his brother Ennis has stayed behind, caring for their father. Returning home after graduation and with his brother urging him to stay, Malcolm struggles with the question any son dreads to ask: How do we achieve our dreams without hurting those that we love the most?
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It’s apt that actor James Craven finished the run of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” last Sunday at the Guthrie Theater and opened the new drama, “Broke-ology,” Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. The two tragedies are related, and not just because they orbit African-Americans whose dreams clash with vexing realities.
The plays regard the potent N-word in opposite ways. In the Wilson classic, Craven’s trombone player Cutler freely and casually slings the epithet. It has muted sting.
In Nathan Jackson’s “Broke-ology,” directed by James A. Williams, Craven’s terminally ill character does not curse (even though the actor seems to want to, especially when he sets himself on fire). But every time the N-word is used by one of his sons, his other son stops him, and makes him repeat the words “I love black people” five times.
The linguistic palliative suggests that Jackson may be a successor to Wilson. While Jackson’s play is full of contemporary lyricism and cleverness (there are puns on the word “booty,” and the play uses the neologism “incognegro”) and while he grounds the action in a cultural idiom, his writing is not as poetic or as deep as Wilson’s. The “Broke-ology” script could use some tweaking. Still, he charts new territory for black characters.
Who’s minding the parents?
Few are the families untouched by the decisions adult children must make about the care of their elders. The role reversal can feel surrealistic to those of the younger generation, a trip down the rabbit hole that can totally alter long-established family dynamics.
Nathan Louis Jackson has crafted a very good play about this increasingly common crossroads called “Broke-ology” that’s receiving an excellent staging at Minneapolis’ Pillsbury House Theatre. Featuring four memorable performances, it’s a production with a comfortably lived-in feel, as if you’ve been invited into a family’s home to witness how they deal with this transition. The talented cast makes it a compelling and ultimately moving family drama.
…Each character gets a fair hearing and a layered portrayal. Holding down the center is James Craven, who makes the father a divided soul, a man ably executing the balancing act of being both confidant and authority figure for his children, yet humbled to be viewed as a burden. Driving the conflict forward are Mikell Sapp and Darius Dotch as the two brothers, the former a live wire of the working class, the latter a calmer presence who nevertheless itches to escape their high-crime neighborhood. The duo makes their banter believable, creating sparks with palpable energy.
Completing the quartet is Sonja Parks, who ably conveys the mother’s strength and confidence. Another exceptional actor helped sculpt these impressive performances: James A. Williams, who, like Craven, is a veteran of several seasons at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre. This production makes clear that Williams has a bright future as a director, should he choose to spend more time on that side of the footlights.
…Broke-ology is a playground for actors and director James A. Willams has assembled for us a terrific cast, led first and foremost by the understated but sly and artful James Craven. Craven’s William is bent, slow-moving, almost blind (the result of the many medications he takes). He’s sweet, almost goofy, and thus it takes us a while to understand that William is in intense pain and engaged in a desperate final struggle to see his sons, Malcolm especially, established in life. The scene when he summons the ghost of his wife (played by the lovely and charismatic Sonja Parks) astonishes. Craven pulls us into this play and never lets us go. His final moments thrill.
As the sons, Mikell Sapp (Ennis) and Darius Dotch (Malcolm) energize Broke-ology and give it its considerable comic oomph. Malcolm wrestles with a (seemingly) vital issue: should I stay with my internship and hope that it turns into a real job, or go to grad school? Ennis is slipping into marriage and fatherhood and is very unsure of himself. The struggles of young men, in other words, which properly fade into the background as they begin to understand the enormity of what their father is undergoing. Dotch and Sapp are relatively inexperienced and director Willams teases first rate performances out of them. I hope they appreciate what he’s done for them (and I hope to see them again). Excellent work.
This play is sometimes downright frightening. But it’s beautifully done – a perfect play to take us into early spring.