By Karen Isaacs
Too often we read and hear on the news about another young man shot in an incident on the streets of any major city. Sometimes they are killed and other times “only” wounded. The cause? It varies from drive-by shootings, gang activities, being in the wrong place, retaliation, or a case of machismo. The victims can be young or nearing maturity — they can be those who have already become part of the problem or they can be the young men who are trying desperately to escape.
brownsville song (b-side for tray) now at Long Wharf Theater through April 19, tells the story of one of these tragic cases. The title refers not only to the location and the poetic/musical elements of the dialogue but also to the tradition of calling the second side of a 48 o r78 rpm recording as the b-side — the side that is anticipated to be a hit.
In this case, it is set in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Tray is 18-years-old and lives with his grandmother and little sister, Devine. He goes to school, works at Starbucks and boxes. He is looking forward to the up-coming Golden Gloves bouts and going to college. In fact, he is struggling to write letters for his college and scholarship applications.
Yet, Tray is not a perfect young man — he sometimes hangs with friends who have more questionable associations — he puts off doing his school work, and he is angry that he must reveal himself or conform to the stereotypes in order to get the needed scholarship aid.
The 90-minute play moves between scenes in Tray’s life and those dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy. Occasionally, when one of the other characters is on stage, it takes a minute or two to figure out whether the scene is a “before” or “after” scene.
The playwright Kimber Lee and director Eric Ting have created a very cinematic work with scenes melding into each other and past and present intertwining. It opens with the grandmother, Lena, brilliantly played by Catrina Ganey sitting at her kitchen table and talking about her feels. But quickly we move to a classroom where Devine is reading to the class her paper about her brother and we see him. But then we are moved to months earlier, when Tray is trying to escape working on his applications and Lena is pushing him to complete his work before going to the gym.
This mixture of present and past, memory and reality are repeated throughout the play. We learn much about Tray — his determination, his anger, his past. A powerful part of that past is Lena, his grandmother but another part is Merrell — the mother of Devine who after Tray’s father was killed — sank into to alcohol and drug addiction and abandoned the family. She is back — clean for nine months after hitting bottom and several attempts at rehab. She shows up as a volunteer tutor to help Tray with his scholarship letters; she had been a 9th grade English teacher. Yet there is more to it than just that. Both Tray and Lena are afraid Merrell is trying to “worm” her way back into their and Devine’s life.
By the end of the play, there is a reconciliation of sorts. Lena get one of Tray’s friends to tell her about the tragic incident and she, Merrell and Devine reach an understanding. Yet there is sense that the violence will continue.
This is a moving work with almost poetic dialogue. It is aided by the fine cast of Catrina Ganey as Lena, Curtiss Cook Jr. as Tray, Sung Yun Cho as Merrell and abetted nicely by Kaatje Welsh as Devine and Anthony Martinez-Briggs as several characters.
Helping to create the cinematic feel of this piece is the lighting by Russell H. Champa, set by Scott Bradley and, above all, the sound design by Ryan Rumery.
This co-production with the Philadelphia Theatre Company deserves your attention. It will move you and make you think about all the lives that have been wasted.
brownsville song (b-side for tray) is at Long Wharf Theaetr through April 19. For tickets contact Long Wharf or call 203-787-4282.