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Thursday, 10 April 2014 14:06

38th Humana Festival of New American Plays: 'brownsville song (b-side for tray)' by Kimber Lee

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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L-R; John Clarence Stewart and Jackie Chung
L-R; John Clarence Stewart and Jackie Chung actorstheatre.org / Bill Breymer

Kimber Lee's "brownsville song (b-side for tray)" opens on a bare, harshly illuminated stage. Lena (Cherene Snow), a middle-aged African-American woman, is in pain. A resident of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Lena has been working two jobs and doing everything she can to raise her two grandchildren properly. Now the older, Tray (John Clarence Stewart), has been gunned down stupidly and senselessly simply because he was standing too close to his gangbanger friend Junior (Joshua Boone).

To the press and public, Tray is just a number—another pointless death in one of "those" neighborhoods. Lena wants us to know that he was much more than that. He was, as Steve Moulds writes in his program note, "the glue that held their family together; he was the rising amateur boxer, the promise of a better future." Anonymous? Faceless? "He was not!", Lena demands.

As the rest of the play unfolds, we see just how big a void Tray left behind. We see him playfully interact with his little sister Devine (Sally Diallo), helping her cope with the anxiety their alcoholic mother Merrell (Jackie Chung) caused when she abandoned them. We see him dealing with attempts to reconnect with him and the rest of his family by a reformed Merrell, who has been assigned to him as a tutor to assist with his college application essay. And we see him trying to balance his relationship with Junior against his desire to move beyond the sudden violence and gray anonymity of the streets—brought to visual life by Dane Laffrey's set with its massive, faux cinder block units.

Quoted in the program note, playwright Lee says she wanted to portray the real people behind the impersonal numbers of neighborhoods like Tray's. "It's families living there, trying to get by with what could seem like insurmountable obstacles. But they're just people trying to put the food on the table, get the kid out of bed, get him dressed, get him to school…doing all the things that all of us do." Given the campaign of hatred and demonization being carried out against people like Tray and his family by the political right in this country, Ms. Lee's point is one that cannot be made too strongly.

Ms. Lee's writing brims with poetry, passion, beauty and—yes—even a kind of verbal music. "There's such a musicality and a hum and rhythm to the life in Brooklyn," she notes. "So it felt right to have the title be some kind of musical thing." It's called the "b-side," she says, because that's "always the song that nobody's heard. It's the one that people aren't talking about." Her characters are sharply drawn and wonderfully three-dimensional. The final monolog, in which Tray reads his completed college essay—the one that got him the scholarship he will never live to use—was profoundly moving.

I know it sounds like a broken record (if not a b-side) to say this, but once again the Actors Theatre put together a first-rate cast. Ms. Snow perfectly captured Lena's strength and pain. Mr. Stewart allowed us to see Tray the boy as well as the man he was becoming. He did, however, look a bit too mature for his character's eighteen years. Ms. Chung's Merrell was clearly a woman trying to take control of her life again—low key without being bland. And young Ms. Diallo was simply a delight as Devine.

Meredith McDonough's direction was clean and focused. Jake Rodriguez's rap/hip hop sound design neatly captured the urban beat suggested by Mr. Laffrey's sets and Ben Stanton's lights. Like every other Actors Theatre show I've seen, tech was generally flawless.

"brownsville song (b-side for tray)" deserves a life beyond Louisville. Casting the role of Devine might be an issue for some companies, but otherwise I think it would be well within the capabilities of any company with access to a decent pool of African-American actors. The elaborate tech the show got at Actors Theatre didn't strike me as essential; I expect it could be done quite effectively with more minimal staging.

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