March 05, 2010

In our neighborhood
by David Ollington

Writers express what they know. In the contemporary world of the theatre, a play’s action often takes place in New York, New England or Great Britain, particularly Ireland. Playwrights set their scenes in their native locations, bringing their own knowledge and experiences to the stage.

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre made a refreshing choice last season with The Borderland, a piece set in a rural area outside of Atlanta, a city and area rarely used by current-day, mainstream playwrights.

The Rep’s current production smashes the trend far more boldly:  playwright Nathan Louis Jackson set Broke-ology in Kansas City, Kansas, just off 18th Street.

(front) David Emerson Toney (Pops/William), Postell Pringle (Ennis) and Larry Powell (Malcolm) in Broke-ology (photo by Don Ipock)

Jackson is the epitome of the local youth who made out well. A KCK native, he graduated from Washington High School where he actively participated in drama, then attended Kansas City Kansas Community College as a theatre major before heading to Manhattan, KS to study at Kansas State University.

He pursued playwriting passionately at KSU, receiving notable accolades and recognition from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Two years ago, the Julliard School accepted him into their (rather exclusive) playwriting program. Jackson now resides in New York City, a professional writer.

Jackson reworked Broke-ology from a play he first premiered at KSU titled The Mancherios. Autobiographical, Broke-ology makes a poetic use of African American dialect, refers to local towns (Bonner Springs, Lawrence), and runs the gamut of emotions from playful joy to somber grief. How rare to attend a play at the Rep and hear references to such proximate landmarks. Add to that the excellent craftsmanship by a native son, stellar onstage talent, and subtly effective design components, and you can witness this production as an experience of community and pride.

Broke-ology accomplishes richness with simplicity. Utilizing only four characters and the Aristotelian unity of place, Jackson created a work with a dizzying amount of variety and depth.

Brothers Ennis (Postell Pringle) and Malcolm (Larry Powell) care for, hang out and play dominoes with their ailing father William, played by David Emerson Toney. Malcolm holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.  Ennis works at a fast food restaurant called Lord of the Wings, and will soon be a new father. Malcolm desires to move to Connecticut to pursue a recent job opportunity leaving Ennis alone to care for William; this is Broke-ology’s central conflict.

Malcolm announces his dream to move away, and his brother Ennis replies, “I hope you’re talking about for a weekend.” Their father William, growing more and more dependent on care, tells Malcolm, “I’m here to help you, not hold you back.” Exacerbating the issue, Malcolm announces this as his older brother Ennis shows him how to give their father shots of medication.

With a simple, specific story set in an inimitable location, Jackson taps into the universal: The dream of a gifted young man possibly thwarted by love for family and responsibility to his roots. William’s condition and the intricacies of the relationships resonate like a Greek tragedy written in the vernacular. Jealousy battles with love between the two brothers. Jackson takes us on a ride, from daily detail involving dominoes, chocolate milk and boxes of memorabilia to the sobering juxtaposition of destiny against the brevity of life. This is Everyperson.

Several times, we witness William’s hallucinatory reconnections with his dead wife Sonia (Shamika Cotton) in fantasy sequences, an alluring element of Jackson’s creation. “Sonia, I can’t believe it,” William exclaims, “You’re here, right here with me and we’re together.” 

Broke-ology stays within the realm of slice-of-life realism with this occasional foray into an onstage dreamland, giving Lighting Designer Victor En Yu Tan the opportunity to conjure some theatrical magic. 

Cotton enters as Sonia from beyond the grave, always with the sons absent from the stage. The two consummate actors make magnetic the love between Sonia and William. En Yu Tan electrifies their affection by emphasizing their touch with illuminating pulse from the onstage light fixtures and by lighting various parts of the stage in subtle, fantastic ways, taking us into a dream. The play is set in the family living room, and Set Designer Meghan Raham placed a tall flight of stairs center stage that Sonia both climbs and descends. En Yu Tan sculpted the light particularly well with her ascents, marking her disappearances, leaving us with a faint, ghostly image of her in the darkness.

Director Kyle Hatley succeeded in effectively staging the many moods of the piece, the witty banter over the dominoes, the dreamy ventures into the world of William’s illusions, and the uneasy conflict. Hatley, Cotton, Powell, Pringle and Toney put dynamic attention to rising energies during the more heated conflicts; the actors perform builds in tempo, volume, and anger with gripping sensitivity.

Genius grows in all parts of the globe. Jackson brings reality and humanity to the stage; look out for his future projects. Despite (or because of) his lack of an Oxford or Ivy League education, his pen touches on archetype, the absurdity of the human condition, and the precarious potential for tragedy. Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory artistic director, made a perfect, inevitable choice, offering this locally grown work to the Kansas City Community. 

Broke-ology runs until March 21. All performances will take place at the Copaken Stage located at 13th and Walnut streets in the H&R Block World Headquarters. For information about tickets and performance times, call the Rep Box Office at 816-235-2700 or visit www.KCRep.org.

David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.