Kimber Lee’s powerful and profound one-act drama, brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes an all too familiar headline of a young black man gunned down in his Brownsville, Brooklyn neighborhood and develops it into a relatable personal tragedy that left many in the audience teary eyed, including this reviewer. Inspired by the actual murder of Tray Franklin, a black student and talented boxer, brownsville song (b-side for tray) is, in essence, a call for empathy and a call for action.
As the play begins, indomitable yet grief-stricken grandmother Lena (wonderful Cathleen Riddley), appears to be responding to an unseen interviewer, perhaps the audience. “Do not begin with me,” she says, “I been scooped out like a jack o’lantern, carved up… I’m not the beginning; I’m the end.” Though not clear at first, we learn that Lena wants us to know the truth about the life and death of her beloved college-bound grandson, the spirited, bright, good-hearted, hard-working, promising Golden Gloves boxer, Tray (terrific Davied Morales). His life is not just “the same old story, a few lines in the newspaper.”
From this juncture, the narrative weaves back and forth in time as we observe the family dynamics among Lena, Tray, his tentative, scarred younger sister Devine (talented newcomer Mimia Ousilas) and mother Merrell (excellent Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) who abandoned Tray and Devine as a result of alcohol abuse. Scenes appear out of chronological order, weeks and days before and after the shooting, but the picture of a fiercely loving family emerges only to be savaged by brutality, and not for the family’s first time.
Playwright Lee wisely has chosen the subtler path of having Tray’s sad and pointless death occur off-stage. We learn about the details only through a conversation between Lena and Tray’s gang-affiliated friend, Junior, well-acted by William Hartfield, who can’t seem to look Lena in the eye. And with an inevitable response, Junior calls for retaliation. We hope that he will heed Lena’s call for healing and break the cycle of violence.
Margo Hall’s dramatic direction and Kimber Lee’s poetic language capture the language of the streets, while emphasizing the moving and loving scenes among the family members, which could have veered towards the clichéd. With electrifying acting and direction, and effective staging, the 100-minute production is a poignant reminder of the vagaries of life and death of young black men in neighborhoods like Brownsville throughout our country. brownsville song (b-side for tray) is an outstanding theatrical experience. Don’t miss it.
Shotgun Players’ reasonable ticket price policies make it easy to attend brownsville song (b-side for tray, which is playing nightly at the Ashby Stage through July 16. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.