Ennis King has invented an entirely new branch of science. It's called Broke-ology, the science of being broke. It's got theories and an extensive equation that includes the two elements in the title. Ennis is an expert, because he's been studying it all his life. The Broke-ology began with his parents, William and Sonia. They only meant to live in the house with the bars on the windows for a few years, five at most, but it became their lifetime home. When younger brother Malcolm comes home with his brand new second Master's degree in hand, he's faced with a tough decision--to stay close by and help Ennis with the aging William, or go back to his own opportunities.
The script, by Nathan Louis Jackson, presented by Seattle Public Theater in association with the Hansberry Project, touches on familiar details both small and overarching. Anyone who's had an ancient fridge will recognize Sonia's exhortations to not put anything on the top shelf lest it freeze. The details were even pulled into the set dressing, for the spaghetti pot belongs on top of the fridge when your kitchen cabinets are too small to hold it. But Broke-ology is also about dreams deferred. Ennis does what he has to, rather than what he wants to, because he can't afford a different choice.
Ennis could have ended up being a shrill, one-note character, but Corey Spruill layers the Chris Rock bluster with Ennis' desperation. He's got a baby on the way, everyone around him is stressed out, and he's got to be the one to hold it all together. When Malcolm's away, he's also the primary caregiver to their father William. Malcolm's visit provides an opportunity to shift some of the burden to someone else and for the family to be whole again.
Many Americans struggle with the care of their elder family members, and the Kings' struggle is no different. William's body is failing him, and he knows it. Sonia has passed away, Ennis can't handle any more, and good assisted living care is expensive. William would much prefer to be able to care for himself. But as his visions of his dead wife become more and more real to him, it's clear he's not going to make it on his own. While Congress debates, real families have to make real choices whether or not they have the resources to follow through.
At some point everyone makes a choice. Ennis decides to swallow his words and his pride to keep his job, Malcolm finally decides what he's going to do about taking the job away from home, and William takes his future into his own hands. None of the choices are ideal, but that's what's left when you complete the Broke-ology equation--the best you can do with what you've got.
The one sour note was a set change at the end that was more of a distraction from rather than an enhancement of a sweet and poignant moment. The script is at its best in simply observing the rhythms of family, particularly between the two brothers. Even though Malcolm has been away, they easily fall into that shorthand that siblings have. Valerie Curtis-Newton, the director, has a sure hand with the relationships at play, and finds the love throughout. If there were no love, then the choices would be easy.
Broke-ology plays at the Bathhouse Theater September 27-October 20 with post-show discussions on Saturday October 5th and Sunday October 13th.