If that sounds a bit corny, more appropriate for a trendy black sitcom in the early 1980s than a trenchant African-American stage show today, that’s understandable. Jackson’s setting part of his play in 1982, with all the attendant attitudes and the sense of the inner city just outside the door - even if that door is located in Kansas City, Kansas - would seem right (in Hollywood terms) for creating a warmly funny jokefest inside. But Jackson avoids most of the typical avenues, settling instead on a light but powerful universally American drama about getting smart, getting up, and getting out of your bad circumstances.
When we first meet William King (Wendell Pierce, from The Wire) and his wife, Sonia (Crystal A. Dickinson) in 1982, they’ve settled into their cramped, shabby home (designed with appropriately loving stuffiness by Donyale Werle). Just temporarily, they insist - until William establishes himself in the construction business and Sonia gives birth to their first baby. After that, she’s going back to school to get her degree, and eventually work as an artist so she can inform the world through paint of the conditions the poor of the country must endure.
Of course things don’t work out as planned. Fast-forward 27 years: Sonia’s gone, but William remains in the house, watching his two grown sons prepare to leave it forever and make their own way. The elder, Ennis (Francois Battiste), isn’t going far - his girlfriend is pregnant and they’re planning on setting up their own life together just a few blocks away. But the younger Malcolm (Alano Miller) has already escaped to the University of Connecticut for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and despite his summer job at the local EPA office, would much rather return to the Northeast permanently. But William is rapidly disintegrating as a result of his multiple sclerosis, and Ennis is sure he can’t oversee both his dying father and his new baby.
Broke-ology, then, is about exactly what Ennis claims when he creates that fictional science: the study of “being broke and staying alive.” The Kings couldn’t afford fancy meals at nice restaurants, but spoons dipped in peanut butter were almost as magical. Nights out were out of the question, but domino games became a sacred tradition (and remain so to the present day). The T-shirts Sonia painted herself ended up looking better than any she could have bought in a store. And if Ennis sees Malcolm’s impending departure as a pure betrayal, it’s less clear that William does: Would he really have sacrificed so much along the way only to stop so close to the final destination?
Jackson’s affection for his characters is palpable, which is understandable given a recent interview in which he admitted that they’re all more than a little autobiographical. Through the play, he argues that being broke and staying alive are not eternally linked, and it’s because he doesn’t ignore the harsh realities of either quality that the play retains its emotional potency. His showing how the same circumstances have incredibly different effects on three men from exactly the same background provides a fascinating window into a group that’s often portrayed as a monolithic entity.
The play’s few missteps only occur when Jackson steps away from this, even for good reasons. A subplot about the boys kidnapping a neighbor’s garden gnome seems to belong in an entirely different play. And though Sonia is an energetically inspiring character, and the wonderfully vivacious Dickinson plays her with exactly the kind of clear-eyed but laser-focused mischievousness, her constant appearances to William after her death inject too much fantasy into a story that the rest of the time strives to maintain its overall grit. Director Thomas Kail has done commendable work throughout, compressing feelings and words into primed-to-bust packages, but he hasn’t managed to keep Sonia’s imagined resurrections from feeling like distractions.
Pierce certainly doesn’t need Sonia’s help - his William is compellingly headstrong but with a very soft center, and emerges over the course of the play as a piercingly accurate picture of a man who’s surreptitiously willing himself to death. Miller is excellent as the scrubbed-clean Malcolm, showing the young man’s desperation, hope, and code of honor in equal measure. Battiste mines every comic cranny of Ennis and soars in scenes that require direct conflict, but otherwise has trouble balancing the urban and elegant sides of his character and reaching completely convincing conclusions about him.
One wonders, however, whether that was Jackson’s goal, so the play would more realistically depict the inner struggles that always accompany public battles to get ahead. The people here will allow themselves to be pigeonholed only as a loving family willing to do anything for each other - and they demand the same in return. According to what’s written here, that’s all that matters. And the quiet power Broke-ology exudes in showing the obstacles and rewards the Kings - and, to some degree, all Americans - face makes it difficult to disagree.