It's apt that actor James Craven finished the run of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" last Sunday at the Guthrie Theater and opened the new drama, "Broke-ology," Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. The two tragedies are related, and not just because they orbit African-Americans whose dreams clash with vexing realities.
The plays regard the potent N-word in opposite ways. In the Wilson classic, Craven's trombone player Cutler freely and casually slings the epithet. It has muted sting.
In Nathan Jackson's "Broke-ology," directed by James A. Williams, Craven's terminally ill character does not curse (even though the actor seems to want to, especially when he sets himself on fire). But every time the N-word is used by one of his sons, his other son stops him, and makes him repeat the words "I love black people" five times.
The linguistic palliative suggests that Jackson may be a successor to Wilson. While Jackson's play is full of contemporary lyricism and cleverness (there are puns on the word "booty," and the play uses the neologism "incognegro") and while he grounds the action in a cultural idiom, his writing is not as poetic or as deep as Wilson's. The "Broke-ology" script could use some tweaking. Still, he charts new territory for black characters.
Widower and patriarch William (Craven) suffers from muscular dystrophy. His son, Ennis (Mikell Sapp), has cared for him while his second son, Malcolm (Darius Dotch), has gone to and returned from college. Things are coming to a head as Ennis' pregnant off-stage girlfriend is about to deliver and as Malcolm has to decide whether to stay and care for his father or go away to graduate school. What will happen to dad?
Williams delivers a tender, big-hearted staging that takes place in Joseph Stanley's convincing, two-story set and in Kalere Payton's evocative period costumes. The creative team (Michael Wangen did the lights) combine to ably suggest the mood in the family home that has an old refrigerator the color of faded algae.
Craven is the sure-handed anchor in the company. Often cast in combustible roles, he is sensitive and restrained as William.
The two young actors who play his sons are making strong introductions to the Twin Cities audiences, even though I wondered initially about switching their roles. Wiry like a wide receiver, Sapp imbues Ennis with white-hot intensity. He has the restlessness and impatience of a cornered person.
Hunky Dotch plays against type, giving Malcolm a measured grace and an intellectual elegance. He and Sapp have a good chemistry.
"Broke-ology" also features small appearances by Sonja Parks, who plays the lovely ghost of Williams' wife in this provocative, see-worthy production.