Directed by Tre Garrett
Stage Manager & Board Operator: Ashley Oliver
Set Design: Michael Pettigrew
Lighting Design: Nikki DeShea
Sound Design: David Lanza
Costume Design: Barbara O'Donoghue
Assistant Director: George W. Donaldson III
Sonia King: T.K. Bell
William King: Jerrold Trice
Ennis King: Amir Ali
Malcolm King: David Jeremiah
Reviewed Performance 5/18/2012
Reviewed by Chad Bearden, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Even before the lights dim or an actor can take their place, the audience members arriving at Jubilee Theatre's current production of Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-ology are invited to drink in a fully lit set which bursts at its seams with recognizable details. It's a set that will resonate with anyone who currently or in days gone existed in that vague limbo between poverty and middle class. The clutter on top of the rusty refrigerator, the shabby and well-worn furniture, the dilapidated stereo speakers propped against the wall, the shelf full of fraying paperback novels, it all speaks to an existence where objects and people are valued for their character and utility, not so much their shiny newness or monetary worth. As the play begins and the plot unfolds, that comfortable sense of home is played up, only to be subverted through the eyes of prodigal son, Malcolm King (David Jeremiah), returning home from college with the experience of a satisfying middle-class world fresh on his mind.
It is only after he has lived a life away from his hometown, Kansas City, that Malcolm fully appreciates the shaky foundation upon which the King family's happiness was built all those years ago. A small moment that captures the illusory satisfaction of life in poverty sneaks up on him as he realizes his favorite dessert as a child, peanut-butter spoons (a spoon dipped once in the peanut butter jar, naturally), was offered as a treat not because it was so inherently delicious but because it was a cheap and easy way for his parents to delight him and his brother, Ennis. Realizations like these, combined with time away from home, reframe Malcolm's memory of childhood, casting it in a darker light. Slowly and subtly, the King family hardships have been revealed to him. And his newfound awareness becomes more than simple past adversity from which life lessons can be drawn. They are now his possible inheritance.
Broke-ology is a powerful examination of that complicated tension we develop between our nostalgic past and our looming present, that illusory balance we must all attempt to strike between our love and obligation for family and the need to explore our lives as individuals.
Director Tre Garrett and his stripped down ensemble confront these questions not with epic melodrama but with a seemingly banal, slice-of-life look at what has become of this once optimistic family.
It should be noted that Jubilee Theatre's self-stated mission is "to create and present theatrical works which reflect the African-American experience". By the time a very pregnant and optimistic Sonia (T.K. Bell) dances onto the stage with her feather duster, singing along with Natalie Cole, the Jubilee Company has already transcended their own mission. That the King family is black is certainly vital to those characters and informs who they are and their place in their world. But it is also beside the point. The tangle of obligations and decisions and consequences the King men must sort out are universal.
Jackson's script, originally produced at New York City's Lincoln Center in 2009, is not the strongest aspect of the show but does provide an effective framework on which to hang strong performances, which the Jubilee cast are eager to provide. The script is calculating in its simplicity and insistence on characterization through chatter. Cocksure and irritable brother Ennis (Amir Ali) is never set up by Jackson to stop the show with a flashy speech. Ennis just wants to make his point, then be somewhere else. The show seldom relies on sermonizing monologues or grandiose posing, but allows its important moments to erupt, almost unexpectedly, out of the warm, playful, and troubled interactions of the King men.
The chemistry between the siblings, for instance, is key. David Jeremiah plays Malcolm, the over-achieving brother who is on the cusp of a future with far broader horizons than anything his father or brother could ever imagine. Though his perspective of the world encompasses more than anyone else in the family, Jeremiah endows Malcolm with a skittish naivet?. He knows what decisions he has to make but he's also afraid of what kind of person that makes him. Amir Ali brings a stunted joi de vivre to brother Ennis. The character's gleeful confidence in his areas of expertise (dominoes and being broke) is at its strongest when he sees how much it irritates his brother. He is the first to walk out of the room, however, when the conversation doesn't turn quite the way he wants. But contained within their emotional extremes there is a real affection between the two, even while they grow further apart in their life experiences.
If there is a heart and soul of the play, it is Jerrod Trice who delivers a deeply textured and heartbreaking performance as the King patriarch, William. Trice brings an affable jollity to the role, exuding warmth and showing great empathy for the circumstances of his sons' lives. Trice's performance is all the more moving because underneath his genial teddy-bear persona, he also smolders with immense sadness. The mournfully hopeful (and possibly delusional) interactions with his lost love; having to witness the dead-end disappointment of one son and the burden his illness imposes on the other; it is devastating to see him crippled by the very compassion that makes him such a great man. The audience roots for Ennis and Malcolm. They cry for William.
Another serviceable contribution comes from T.K. Bell, mother and wife to these three troubled men. Her scenes are brief but Bell makes them count, particularly in the show's brief prologue, where in five minutes she is able to imbue mother Sonia with enough heart and charm to justify how much all the men love her.
And as stated above, the set design by Michael Pettigrew is a character unto itself. Great care is obviously put into bringing together the King home, and there isn't a square foot that isn't covered with something that I'd almost suspect Pettigrew stole from my childhood home, from the rickety cabinet housing the cheap but somehow important glassware that we never used, to the photo album propped up on a bookshelf as though it were high art. This is a set full of life and memory and character.
Light and sound also contribute to the lived-in atmosphere. Small touches, such as the glow of the stereo after the lights are turned out, again hurtle me back into my childhood. The use of music is a key component to David Lanza's sound design, providing a soundtrack or sorts that enhance the nostalgia factor. Nikki DeShea provides a gentle light design, a calm reflection of William's persona, helpful in easing the audience from the past to the present, from his dream-world to reality.
And great credit must finally be given to Jubilee's artistic director, Tre Garrett, who manages to unite all the various threads of production, but also injects Broke-ology with a great deal of his own personal charm. In the simple act of introducing the show, Garrett took the stage on opening night not to issue gratuitous pats on the back for himself or the cast or the production staff. No, his intention was to reach out to the community and challenge the audience to participate in important civic outreach, and to fulfill his intention of bringing community leaders to the stage to share inspirational stories prior to the performance.
Broke-ology has its joyous moments but it is ultimately a tragedy. A tale of how poverty and family momentum can be an anchor difficult to cast off. Tre Garrett is eager to personally remind us that sad stories are not told to depress or discourage, but to enlighten, to unite and to inspire. Jubilee Theatre in general, and Broke-ology in particular, have a way of doing all that.
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102
This show will run at Jubilee Theatre through June 10.
Thursday - Saturday @ 8:00 pm
Saturday- Sunday @ 3:00 pm
Tickets are $15.00-$25.00. Thursday night is $10.00 paid online. Rush tickets are $10, subject to availability, and only sold 15 minutes prior to curtain. Limit one (1) per valid student ID.
To purchase tickets, go to www.jubileetheatre.org or contact the box office at 817.338.4411
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