|brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Chris Bennion)|
brownsville song (b-side for tray)
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through April 24, 2016
The 21st century internet has made most of us much more aware of the tragedies occurring routinely in poor neighborhoods, riddled with gangs, and poorly policed. While it’s not “fun” to go see a sad story about a murder of a bright young man with a compelling future, Kimber Lee’s play, brownsville song (b-side for tray), layers in a beguiling central character, Tray (played adorably by Chinaza Uche) and a perhaps-cliché’d difficult family life to tell the story.
Lee’s play wants to shed light on the multitudes of young people killed each year in hard-to-police neighborhoods. Her subtitle, referencing the lesser side of records, the “b” side, reflects the desire to bring attention to people that don’t make the news and don’t get attended to. Lee started with a real person, Tray Franklin, who lived and died (in 2012) in Brownsville, a community in New York City. In an article in the program, Claire Koleske says that Franklin’s name wasn’t even included in news articles about his death.
I imagine those saying, “Another young man was gunned down in Brownsville today.” It’s a collective shrug. So, I admire Lee’s impulse to help us meet this aspiring boxer who dreamed of attending college.
The beginning of the production is strong: a grandmother alone on stage being interviewed and trying to place attention of her grandson’s uniqueness. Director Juliette Carrillo includes theatrical moments like characters entering the stage and sitting or standing motionless as scenic additions and augmentations.
Denise Burse as the grandmother, Lena, is a strongly drawn and loving woman desperate to hold the remnants of her family together after losing both her son and daughter-in-law. Tray and his half-sister, Devine (played alternately by Leah DeLynn Dual and Catherine Ting Karman) also look out for each other.
A friend of Tray’s (a brief appearance by Tyler Trerise) fills in a bit more information about what happened to the fictional Tray, though that explanation is a bit weak. Still we know that “reasons” don’t really apply in many of these often random killings.
There are a few moments that confuse unnecessarily (a hint at possible secret meetings that then do not pan out into any plot elements, and an underwritten role for a step-mother who reappears in an awkward mentor/mentee role) and the middle of the play could use at least ten minutes tightening.
The most effective part of the play, besides his loving relationship with his small sister, is Tray’s attempt to address who he is through writing a college application essay. And the power of the ending is his delivery of this extremely well-written affirmation of who he is and what he aspires to become, knowing that all of his potential has already been wasted and whatever else he might have given to the world has been so prematurely snuffed out.