It was 20 years ago today — well, within a month or two — that the low-budget, serious-minded American Theater Project rolled the dice in an Anacostia storefront. It survived only a couple of seasons.
Will better luck come to the new Anacostia Playhouse, which opened just around the corner over the weekend?
The times have certainly changed. The city’s theatrical scene is much deeper, with an ever-refreshing corps of small and emerging troupes that could use the kind of modest but comfortable facility — bathrooms you won’t have to share with actors, easy street parking on Shannon Place SE — being christened by Nathan Louis Jackson’s popular “Broke-ology.”
The play is being staged by Theatre Alliance, one of a handful of troupes that used to roost in the H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington. (The Playhouse got in early on that strip’s redevelopment, which became so successful that shoestring nonprofit groups were eventually priced out of the building.) Jackson’s warm, straightforward drama about a black family in Kansas City is a solid fit in the new theater, which can seat 150 but is configured more cozily, for less than 100.
The drama is a guilt-fueled tug of war over Malcolm, the family’s new college graduate. Will he stay home and take care of his father, who is widowed and suffering from multiple sclerosis? Or will he accept a solid job offer in Connecticut?
“I want to go,” Malcolm says.
“We need you to stay,” says Ennis, Malcolm’s older brother.
The drama is just that basic, yet Jackson’s play has been widely produced since its premiere at Massachusetts’s Williamstown Theatre Festival five years ago because the dilemmas feel accurate (there are autobiographical roots to the Kansas-bred Jackson’s plot) and the characters have just enough theatrical flair.
Ennis is an especially captivating creation. His tart tongue generates a lot of humor, whether he’s teasing his father and brother over dominoes or play-acting the wicked revenge he’d love to unleash at the grueling barbecue restaurant where he is overworked. Jacobi Howard is wonderfully easygoing with Ennis’s punch lines, and he tightens nicely when Ennis — whose phone hums with messages from his girlfriend as the couple expect their first child — feels tension from all sides.
It’s Ennis who offers a streetwise theory of “broke-ology,” the study of what keeps black families stuck in neighborhoods like that of the ironically named Kings. Jackson’s script sometimes shortchanges a real debate about how to break the cycle, and it sometimes unfolds slowly, especially in heavily sentimental scenes between the patriarch William (G. Alvarez Reid) and his late, lamented wife, Sonia (Tricia Homer).
Even so, you develop a rooting interest in the play’s three noble men, strongly cast to type by director Candace L. Feldman. The slightly built Marlon Russ brings a youthful vulnerability to Malcolm, while Reid uses his greater size to convey the weight and complications of age and a withering disease.
The performers respond well to the script’s earnestness, and so do the designers. Harlan Penn’s small, realistic kitchen/living-room set illustrates the family’s ultra-tight budget but also the neatness Sonia insisted on while she was alive. Reggie Ray’s simple but fetching dresses for Sonia accomplish the same thing. The bluntness is appealing, and the welcoming Playhouse stage — with John Johnson’s “I Am Anacostia” and then David Henry Hwang’s “Bondage” from Pinky Swear Productions coming in the fall — frames it well.
by Nathan Louis Jackson. Directed by Candace L. Feldman. Lights, John D. Alexander; original music, Kris Bowers. About two hours. Through Sept. 8 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Call 202-241-2539 or visit theateralliance.com.