I do not have much to say about Seattle Public Theater’s production of Nathan Louis Jackson’s Brokeology. As a script it is an utterly average play. The play cannot help but succeed because there is nothing ambitious enough to fail. Nothing is particularly bad in it. Nothing is particularly good in it. Everything is pat, everything is obvious, everything is “plotted.” This is a typical family in a typical situation with a typical dramatic engine. It is competent, and nothing more. The play gives me the same tepidly washed feeling I used to get when I would watch a lesser episode of DeGrassi Junior High or a dreadfully earnest “very special episode” of Different Strokes. It is what my friends and I often snidely refer to as “wholesome.”
That is precisely the kind of play I find uninteresting. And so on that level there is nothing to say.
If there is anything interesting to say about the production it is that such middle-of-the-road blandness shows a great fair-mindedness on the part of the theater’s artistic director. A mediocre play by a Black artist receives equal treatment to a mediocre play by the white artists who regularly dominate the stage with drabness such as The Happy Ones or The Language Archive. It is a step on the road to equality, but not the kind of equality one wants. I refer you to the wisdom of Chris Rock:
Equality is not in being great. Great black people have always been compensated. Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world, Louis Armstrong–they were compensated for being great. The true equality is the equality to suck like the white man, you know? That’s the true equality. When I watch the Oscars–okay, these are the people that made the good movies. What about the people that made the bad movies? That’s most of the industry. I wanna be like that! Not that I want to be bad, but that I wanna have the license to be bad, and come back and learn. That’s really Martin Luther King’s dream coming true: guys suckin’.
But there is the crux of the matter: there are no guys suckin’ here. The problem with such plays as Brokeology is that they merely prove that an African American drama can be as dull as any other safe, white bourgeois play. But safety isn’t where equality matters. Equality matters in the freedom not to be mediocre but rather in the freedom to be god-awful and still be accepted for it: the freedom to try anything and to fall flat on one’s face and, as Mr. Rock puts it, “come back and learn.” And by learning, learn as Beckett says, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
That line is often quoted. What isn’t quoted is Beckett’s reminder “No try no fail. Say only –“. And there is, in the lack of trying, an awful lot of –.
The Seattle Public Theater have achieved a kind of equality in their play selection. The freedom to be mediocre is, I suppose, an essential part of the freedom to suck. But this freedom, too, has a patina. The actors on stage are anything but mediocre. Troy Allen Johnson is better by far than a dozen over-employed actors of his age. Tyler Trerise cuts a remarkable figure on stage and proved himself to be a fine young actor even when I saw him as a student in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July. Corey Spruill is one of the finest actors in the city, capable of making me care about productions I do not like, such as Oedipus El Rey. Even the most minor character in the play is played by Amber Wolfe who is categorically a superstar and an incredible beauty to boot. Director Valerie Curtis-Newton remains one of the technically sharpest directors in the city.
And yet, here they all are, doing Brokeology. Were this not “a Black play” these parts would be filled by any number of reasonably talented white actors in Seattle. There are dozens of mediocre plays of this ilk every year–mediocre productions, with mediocre white actors–which prove the point. But because Americans are nowhere near a real racial equality, plays like Brokeology demand African American actors of exceptional caliber just to be considered an average melodrama.
But what a waste. Talent of this level should be free, exercising their license to be great or to suck as they see fit.