Francois Battiste, Wendell Pierce, and Alano Miller
in Broke-Ology
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Francois Battiste, Wendell Pierce, and Alano Miller
in Broke-Ology
(© T. Charles Erickson)
The title of Nathan Louis Jackson's Broke-Ology, now at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater under Thomas Kail's direction, is explained by one character as "the study of being broke." But it's not simply lacking funds that characterizes this nouveau science, as it also involves "staying alive despite your broke-ness." Jackson's intermittently engaging play examines this will to survive -- or not -- as it pertains to an African-American family living in Kansas City, Kansas.

The play begins in 1982, as William King (Wendell Pierce) and his wife Sonia (Crystal A. Dickinson) are anticipating the birth of their first child. They live in a neighborhood rough enough to warrant having bars on every window. But at least, given their limited income, it's a decent enough place (particularly as realized by scenic designer Donyale Werle). And, as they state later in the play, the house was supposed to be temporary -- five years at the most.

The bulk of the play is set in the year 2009 in the same house, with the same furnishings. Sonia is now dead, and grown sons Ennis (Francois Battiste) and Malcolm (Alano Miller) are helping to take care of their ailing father, who is suffering from multiple sclerosis. At one point or another, all of the characters complain about feeling stuck. The lives they lead don't match up to their dreams. The only one who seems to have a decent chance of getting out is the college-educated Malcolm. But in order to do it, he'll have to abandon his father in his time of need.

Battiste is the clear stand-out in the cast, capturing the humor of the play while also delving into depths of sadness and despair. Pierce has an engaging presence but doesn't always emotionally connect to the material. Miller plays his part too flatly, which is unfortunate as it's Malcolm's struggle to make a decision about whether to stay or go that is supposed to drive the play's action. Dickinson has the least to work with, but impresses in a scene in which Sonia flat-out tells William that the life she's living is not the one she wanted.

Jackson writes engaging dialogue, but doesn't explore his theme of personal desire versus family duty in an interesting enough manner, and the play becomes predictable as the second act winds down. The unsatisfying ending seems particularly clichéd, even as it becomes theatrically inevitable.