When a show really works, when all elements combine into a whole that's more powerful than any one of them, then each element will, like DNA, also contain the whole within itself. At the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's potent production of Broke-ology, a drama set in the Quindaro neighborhood and written by Kansas City, Kansas' Nathan Louis Jackson, that whole is obvious in Meghan Raham's set: a run-down, lived-in home with dust-covered windows — a home that's still alive with beauty and light.
There are board games that nobody has played in decades, a Rick James record by the turntable, an air conditioner duct-taped in a window, an old quilt brightening the couch. In this house, William King is haunted by the memory of the wife he lost, and he's comforted by the presence of his adult sons. Like everything else in the show, this remarkable set suggests loneliness, even broke-assedness, but not poverty — certainly not in the wretched, desperate way Americans think of such things, and certainly not of the soul.
It suggests nothing more — or less — than lives going by.
We also see the whole in Postell Pringle's full-bodied performance as Ennis, King's son and frequent caretaker, a bright young man who never made it out of Kansas City, Kansas. Trapped in a go-nowhere job, Ennis is alternately eager and annoyed as his girlfriend gets closer to giving birth to their child. He drinks too much but isn't a monster; he larks off with his buddies once in a while but he isn't a no-show dad.
Pringle plays Ennis as cagey, argumentative and put-upon, but also warm, sometimes goofy and admirably dedicated to his families. He's not part of a person but a compelling whole, a man torn in too many directions at once.
His desires drive the show. His brother, Malcolm (Larry Powell, also memorable and complex), has just returned to Quindaro with a master's degree from the University of Connecticut and a job at the Environmental Protection Agency. For months, Ennis has been dropping by the old house to care for the ailing William, played by David Emerson Toney. (Toney is a mighty performer, with a voice as rich and deep as notes plucked on an upright bass. He is especially moving as a man staring down his own decline.)
Malcolm hopes to work in Kansas City for a couple of months before heading back east to teach. Ennis, however, asks Malcolm to stay and help tend to their father. Predictable tensions are immediately apparent: hometown Ennis versus collegiate Malcolm, now wearing preppie shorts and eating English muffins instead of biscuits and gravy.
To playwright Jackson's credit, their tensions are never presented along the familiar schematic of street-smart versus book-learned. These characters are whole — not ever examples or clichés or parts of persons manipulated to fit a plot. And in the play's finest moments, the brothers still enjoy each other and laugh together.
Sturdy and moving, Broke-ology is, on occasion, touched with greatness. Sometimes it's also a little much. After lengthy, lovely moments illuminating how this family works and why its members love one another, scenes can get too intense too quickly, rushing through catastrophes and confrontations. One extended bit of fraternal horseplay demands that the brothers talk in silly pirate voices much longer than anyone in the world would bother. The elder King shares several flashbacks and dream sequences with his deceased wife, Sonia (Shamika Cotton), and these, too, sometimes get caught up in a discomfiting gush.
But even in those dreams, director Kyle Hatley and his crew achieve that rare wholeness. Most impressive are the powerful moments when King's lonely, broke-ass now slips, in his mind, to the broke-ass past and the wife for whom he longs. Rigged by lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan and set to a keening, minimalist score (by Tim Munger) that feels tuned directly to our individual feelings of loss, these transitions sneak up in everyday incidents. William stands too long in front of the open refrigerator, and the house darkens around him while the fridge light glows brighter until somehow, almost naturally, his wife has stolen up beside him, asking him to take her dancing.
Or he revels in the Temptations' "Just My Imagination," and time again becomes porous, just as it always does with that song, one of the most sublime works of art America has produced. These moments concern characters adrift, uncertain of who they are or who they should be, but still reaching out for what makes life worth living.
Broke-ology premiered at Lincoln Center last year. Some critics have complained that this story of family and responsibility doesn't have enough story. I fail to see how the threat of a foreclosure or some other contrivance could improve on what's already here: life itself.