‘Brownsville…’ not a pretty song

Long Wharf Theatre, Main Stage, New Haven: Urban violence is not just a term. It is an accurate description of crimes that we read about in our newspaper, hear on the radio, watch on television, and experience bigger than life at the movies.  However, urban violence at the theater is a whole other matter.

There is nothing blocking or distancing the viewer from the action. That is what works best for playwright/boxer Kimber Lee in her play Brownsville song (b-side for Tray). This author wants the audience to see what happens to a family and a community after a smart, promising young black athlete is shot down in the prime of his life in a senseless violent act. Written as if in lyrics to a song, this is one song that is not very pretty and might very well be inspired by rap music.

The young man is Tray, and his grandmother Lena opens the play strongly denying that the death of her grandson is just like another black kid getting killed in the city. She wants to make sure that he is not the “Same old story huh/ A few damn lines in the paper/A split second a some poor old woman/Wringing her hands and cryin’ on your evening news.”

Angrily, she shouts that Tray was not a member of a gang and he didn’t run around with a bad group of kids. He was an athlete, a boxer, and he was about to graduate high school and pursue a college career.

The audience knows right from the get-go that Tray is dead and his grandmother and young sister Devine are grieving. Devine places three dinner plates on the table when only she and her grandmother will be eating. However, the play does not move chronologically. It moves back and forth from present to past frequently. Due to director Eric Ting’s spot-on direction, there is never any doubt as to whether the action on stage is past or present.

The audience sees that Tray is a good kid. This in spite of the fact that his father was shot dead at a young age and his mother, Merrell, abandoned both Tray and Devine. It was Lena who raised these two children and she did it in Brownsville, a section of Brooklyn where gangs roamed and ultimately shot and killed Tray.  The reason? Well, Tray’s friend Junior explains to Lena that gangs make killing a game. They keep score. “Body count be like trophies…you get points for every one you put down.” Tray was at the wrong place at the wrong time and a gang member killed him.

Kimber Lee is right. It’s easy to think of a kid being shot in the city as just another kid whose life was cut short due to urban violence. In actuality it is about a family that will never be the same again. It is about a community that has lost what could have been its shining star. There’s nothing common place about a young man’s life being cut short by senseless violence.

While the acting is very good with Curtiss Cook Jr. as Tray delivering a lively, fun-filled performance and Catrina Ganey breathing a strong-willed character to life, there were problems with the play.  Sung Yun Cho plays Tray’s mother Merrell who returns after rehab for drug addiction, but this character is not well developed. Neither is Junior  a fully developed character, although Anthony Martinez-Briggs makes the most of what he has. Add to this  that some of the scenes seem trivial, including the one that takes place in Starbucks.

Overall, Brownsville song (b-side for tray) echoes what we read, see, and hear every day. It’s nothing new and offers no alternatives. However, it is a stark reminder that every life is precious no matter where you live – even in a “bad” or “poor” section of a city where violence runs rampant.

The 90-minute, no-intermission production plays through April 19. Box office: longwharf.org or 203-787-4282

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association.  She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]

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