All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Before launching into a generally favorable review of Kimber Lee’s sensitive and moving play, “Brownsville Song (B-Side for Tray),” I need to admit a pet peeve and explain the law of first transgression.
The pet peeve involves grammar and punctuation. I find it pretentious of authors who are not named e.e. cummings to call attention to their works by writing titles entirely in lower case. As you can see by the title line of this review, I won’t honor Kimber Lee’s substandard wishes. My reason is the law of first transgression. Lee violated the rules of grammar by invoking her artistic license and setting “Brownsville’s” title in small letters. I don’t grant her, or Neil LaBute, or Ntozake Shange, or anyone such license and won’t respect their shoddy intentions. Because Lee offended first, I will transgress the rules of journalism and write Lee’s title as I prefer it instead of as it is accurately set. Wanton pretension of Lee’s kind must be discouraged. I will go so far as to say if I handled contracts for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Lee would have had to agree to standard English capitalization, or her play, worthy though it is, would not have been done. That’s how much I abhor the corruption of English for no good or obviously literary purpose.
Now to the play.
I worried during the first speech in “Brownsville Song (B-Side for Tray),” Kimber Lee’s thought-provoking play being presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company. Lena, a mother who has just lost her grandchild, Tremaine, or Tray, to some as yet unrevealed violence, presents an interesting, enlightened point of view to deal with her grief, but she expresses it in pseudo-poetic language that seems more self-conscious and stylistic than artistic.
Lena, played to perfection by sincere, realistic Catrina Ganey, says it’s too late to show interest in Tray and his fate. He is already dead, already killed. Tray’s story, she says, is not that should be retold. It’s one that should have been prevented. His life has run its course. Memory and mourning cannot be helped, but Lena does not want to parade her emotions, or even her thoughts, for the benefit of people who want to begin looking at Tray’s life when it is no more. Lena will only speak of a sad ending. She knows Tray’s life. She isn’t going to recite it or rehash for you.
Fortunately, Lee does. Lena’s opening monologue is the only time “Brownsville’s” language takes flights of artificial fancy. Following it, characters speak directly, and articulately. They don’t repeat or go into a mantra in a heightened, affected way.
On the contrary, they go the heart of the matter and disclose who Tray is and how his fate, being gunned down on a Brooklyn ghetto street by a gang member, makes many jump to conclusions and decide things about Tray’s life that are not true and, by implication, might rarely be true.
To Lena, as to Lee, and finally to us, “Brownsville’s” audience, Tray is not a statistic or a stereotype. He’s an individual. He’s a young man who has a personal history that might be similar to boys of his age and circumstance, but is identical to no one’s. Lee, by showing Tray’s complete milieu and how he negotiates it, stresses that Tray, and no one, should be subject to a casual newspaper reader or TV news watcher’s conjecture of what kind of person he is or the kind of existence he has. Tray, Lee says, is not representative. He’s not typical. No child, or adult, slaughtered on a street corner for crossing the path of someone who thinks it’s cool or, from a gang point of view, ambitious to be truculent with a gun, is. They are all people who have unique lives that can’t be gleaned by making judgments from a news story.
Lena may not want to talk to strangers about Tray’s. She might not want to explain Tray to the narrow-minded who are sure they know him by his cause of death. Luckily Lee does, and the portrait she paints is a telling and touching one.
Lee stacks “Brownsville’s” deck from time to time. Her play has enough authenticity and poignancy to carry an audience. We are concerned with Tray’s safety because we know the outcome of his life even if we don’t know how it happened, We take an interest in Tray’s sister, Devine, because she seems to be so hopeless, confused, and dependent a little girl. We find Devine’s mother, Tray’ stepmother, Merrell, fascinating because she is so wise yet almost compulsively self-destructive, even as she recovers from addiction. Lena is the solid, sturdy matriarch who endures all, provides discipline and love, but who has her own rules and own limitations. The mix is heady, but just as Lee cannot resist overlarding Lena’s opening speech, she include bits that plead mawkishly for pity or empathy when so much genuine sentiment and pathos is interwoven into “Brownsville.”
“Brownsville” works best — and its best is quite absorbing — when it at its most direct and raw. When Lena or Merrell wax rhapsodic, writing takes over from more enticing, more meaningful drama. Lena and Merrell’s lives are too fraught with the vestiges of stark reality to become poetic or fanciful. They have to work too hard at survival for that. If Tray took on an occasionally heightened tone, it might play because we know Tray has sensibility and sensitivity beyond what he expresses. Devine could also get away with a flight of reverie, although I’m glad Lee did not give her one. Lena and Merrell, representing the toughness of existence, being one who faces life squarely and one who resorts to deep escape, are most effective when they’re diamond hard, even in their expressions of love. It is their roles as influences on Tray’s life and guardians of Tray’s security that matter. There’s grit, and there’s depth, but no poetry to either woman, and Lee loses her way a little when she tries to assign some.
“Brownsville” is set in one of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that have not yet been gentrified. Brownsville remains a ghetto while area just west and south of it have been reclaimed. As with many ghetto dwellers, Tray, his family, and his closest friend, Junior, rarely venture past their own enclave. A Starbuck’s where Tray and Merrell work, and get somewhat reunited, is a sign that Brownsville may be ripe for imminent middle class incursion, but in Lee’s play, it remains a turf that is not foreign to sudden danger, especially when teenage boys of Tray’s age are involved.
Tray is not a nerd or a mama’s boy. He can be as cool as any of his peers. He is not a gang member and knows, but does not hang around with, thugs or petty criminals. Against some code of neighborhoods like Brownsville, he holds his own with all groups and has no enemies. Tray doesn’t even take drugs, a common teen trait in any area, so he is not doing business with gangs, dealers, or their runners. The drug-addled person who affects him most is Merrell, the Asian second wife of his father and that man’s widow. Lee is careful, in an apt allusion, to show parallels between Tray and his father. Lena is Tray’s paternal grandmother and Merrell’s erstwhile mother-in-law.
It is Tray’s normality that impresses. He’s a typical teen in most regards. He lies to Lena about school assignments and about where he’s been if he’s out late. He complains about having to struggle and to be treated, at times, like the child who requires parental intervention. He also likes to read, is observant, generally polite to his grandmother, and devoted to his silent, often inert sister.
Devine is Merrell’s daughter, but she lives with Tray and Lena because Merrell, while addicted after Tray’s father’s death, cannot take care of her.
You would watch “Brownsville” wondering when the dramatic will be unleashed if it wasn’t for Lena telling you at the outset Tray is killed. Knowing that gives Lee’s play constant tension, especially when all signs point at Trey not being a candidate for violence. He plays basketball and other sports, goes around with Junior and others, and has a pretty regimented, responsible existence. He is relied upon for competence at Starbuck’s and is great brother and companion to Devine.
That’s “Brownsville’s” point. Not every youth who dies by violence puts himself in a position to encounter violence. Tray’s sole exposure to danger is the neighborhood where he lives. In Brownsville, people are picked on and preyed upon. Life is held at a pin’s fee by some, and Tray, for all regular boyness and his knack for being cool enough to fit in, is not immune to others’ disregard for whether he makes it through the day or not.
Meanwhile, Tray has witnessed the difficult. His father was killed on Brownsville streets. The evidence is his father bordered on the middle class. Merrell, before her drug problems, was a high school teacher in Brooklyn public schools and would have made a decent salary. So Tray has seen the demise of his father, the ugly decline of his stepmother, and the effect both have had on Devine, who proceeds perpetually as someone who doesn’t seem cognizant of where she is. Devine sits still and waits any place she thinks Tray might find her, as if she was a puppy instead of a little girl. She barely says a word and seems totally unfit to negotiate her front stoop let alone Brownsville or a wider swatch of Brooklyn.
Lee is gifted as creating scenes that are tense and on the brink of conflict without having actual conflict erupt. Even frosty scenes between Lena and Merrell remain brittle and poised for fireworks without actually exploding. Everyone in Tray’s world, except for the oblivious Devine, lives in a state of high alert. It is this constant friction that drives “Brownsville Song” and gives it its power. The more people confront without coming to actual blows, physical or verbal, the more you understand Tray’s world and appreciate all that impinges on this young man.
Lena can unleash a tirade at Merrell, but it’s her disgust at Merrell abandoning her children and spiraling into addictive dependence that bothers her. She is angry at the woman she knows Merrell has become, and she is going to deal with that Merrell and not the teacher that preceded her. Merrell has abdicated all rights regarding Devine and Tray as far as Lena is concerned, and the plain-spoken matriarch lets her know it.
You see how rich “Brownsville Song” can be in providing texture and building a complete environment for Tray to inhabit. Lee dashes all kinds of stereotypes and preconceptions, as is her aim. She establishes that one cannot judge Lena, Trey, or even Merrell by their race or where they live. Economics don’t always dictate a person’s class or substance. They can determine where one lives, and the menace and vulnerability of a ghetto can override how an individual lives within it. Society tends to equate the people who live in Brownsville with the neighborhood, They are all one of a piece. In “Brownsville Song,” Lee eloquently explodes that idea.
The play is affecting. All four major characters touch you emotionally. You want to protect Devine as much as Tray and Lena do. You want to restore Merrell to her best self. You want to take Tray, who is college bound and wins a posthumous grant towards his education, and remove from all possible danger.
Lee and her characters get to you in a significant, palpable way. Any overembellishment of some scenes or situations can be forgiven. Lee has successfully shown a boy’s existence and how it teeters between a young man escaping the ghetto, with some psychological wounds of the kind we all acquire growing up, in the ghetto or not, or becoming another victim to its irrational disrespect for life. What Junior tells Lena about the gang-related details concerning Tray’s death reinforces the peril young men in the ghetto live with and make Tray’s murder sadder.
Lee also succeeds in telling one person’s story without bringing in off the points of view and sentimentality Lena eschews in her first speech. Tray is not a Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray, who is killed by overzealous police. Lee avoids all eulogies and misconceptions to let Tray’s story unfold and present itself. In some ways you get a less involved view than was generated by the Martin and Gray cases. In another way, you get something much more valuable, the chance to know an ordinary, but promising, young man who died by the reckless act of another. The difference is poignant, and you feel it deeply.
Curtis Cook, Jr. is remarkable as Tray. Totally realistic, Cook can entertain Devine with little tricks and facial expressions that get through the girl’s limited understanding, can be a regular guy loping around with a basketball or hanging with Junior, can be the kid Lena has to chastise for lying and not getting his schoolwork, can be enough of an adult to commune with Lena on a conversational plane in which Tray makes his own points, and can be enough of a man to realize Merrell’s trespasses and forgive her for them. The scene in which Tray must train Merrell at Starbuck’s is bittersweet.
Cook’s naturalness extends to his readings of Tray’s lines. He seems authentic throughout and never gives a hint he’s acting.
Catrina Ganey brings out all of Lena’s strength and resolve. Lena needs strength, not only to deal with all the responsibility she had heaped upon her as she cares for her grandchildren, but to cope stoically with the grief that could overcome her, as it did Merrell, following the similar killings of her son and grandson. Lena is one who strives to go on, to put her loved one in her memory, and to proceed clear-eyed and purposefully with life. Ganey sensitively embodies all that Lena is. You see her dealing head-on with life, and that includes putting death and violence in their place. She has Devine to think about, and Devine is much more likely to invite calamity than Tray or his father were.
Sung Yun Cho, above all, lets you see Merrell’s brains and will to atone for the harm she’s done to herself and her children since her husband was killed.
Not quite free of drugs, Merrell is not to be trusted, and Lena is right to want to keep her at bay and ration any time she might have with Devine and Tray. Merrell is not yet ready to be anyone’s mother, and she has disappointed Lena too much to expect to become her mother-in-law’s responsibility. Cho shows Merrell striving and the sincerity of her intent to recover completely from drugs. Because Tray is mature and rational, Merrell can reach him on some level, especially when she persuades Tray that just because she’s an addict doesn’t negate she is a trained teacher and gets him to allow her to help him with his scholarship composition. The two also bond over being Starbuck’s colleagues.
Cho endows Merrell with tenacity, a will to get past her troubles, that makes you like her. You wish Lena would be more receptive to her while realizing Lena’s reasons for resisting Merrell are sound and based on harm done to Devine.
Kaatje Welsh finds a way to show Devine’s innocence and confusion while remaining sympathetic. Every time you see her waiting for Tray or Lena to come out of a store or take her home from school, Welsh radiates vulnerability. You half want to run on to the Suzanne Roberts stage and wait with Devine until someone comes to escort her to safety.
Anthony Martinez Briggs nicely serves a functional role as Junior, whose gang affiliation or drug use in hard to gauge. He has one great scene as a Brooklyn College student who gives the trainee Merrell a complicated order, filled with half shots and double shots and sugar-free and fat-free, at Starbuck’s.
Scott Bradley creates the impression of a bustling neighborhood while realistically placing Lena’s apartment on a riser stage center. It’s a walk-up, and it’s clever than Bradley and director Eric Ting thought to elevate it from the stage.
Toni-Leslie James’s costumes are right for the Brownsville setting. Lighting designer Russell H. Champa and sound designer Ryan Rumery pair well to create an inner city background full of shadows, arriving and receding el trains, and street sounds.
Eric Ting keeps all moving efficiently and does a fine job placing Devine where we can always see her and have her in mind and in honing his actors’ distinct and well-executed characters.
“Brownsville Song (B-Side for Tray),” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, May 31, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $59 to $46 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.