Cherene Snow with Sally Diallo in brownsville song (b-side for tray)
Brownsville song (b side for tray)
By Kimber Lee
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Review by Emily Pike Stewart
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Emily Pike Stewart. All rights reserved.
We open to a darkened stage with a starkly lit woman begging us not to begin with her. This is his story, not hers. It is about his life, not her sorrow. She may be its ending, but he is its beginning. We should start with her grandson Tray.
We soon learn, through a series of flashbacks paired with present-day vignettes, how this unfortunate tale has unfolded. Tray (John Clarence Stewart) was a good kid in a bad neighborhood, who through no fault of his own was ensnared in a gang conflict and tragically lost his life. His death mirrors that of his father, who was also struck down before his time. The grandmother (Cherene Snow) who raised Tray struggles to cope with his loss and to redefine their family in his absence. His baby sister, Devine (Sally Diallo), has difficulty grasping the fact that she will never see her big brother again.
By beginning at the end, we know exactly where we are headed. We know the relationships that will be broken and ties that will be severed, and it makes their early exposition all the more heart wrenching. However, this prescience can also present a significant challenge to development. If the end is understood from the start, there has to be more in between them than plot, but the brownsville song script struggles to maintain consistent interest in its own deeper meaning. It successfully connects A to B by deftly unfolding the events of Tray’s story, weaving its path in and out of time in a way that beautifully parallels the surreal experience of intense grief. But, a greater purpose is largely unclear until the very last lines of the play, and after waiting so long to reach its point, the story’s intended uplifting payoff unfortunately comes across as predictable and somewhat underwhelming. While playwright Kimber Lee’s structure is unique and adds much in the way of theatrical interest, it doesn’t fully contribute to the expression of her larger themes.
The same can be said for the production’s design elements. There is a vastness to the set (Dane Laffrey) that doesn’t always connect with the script, and the four large moving walls are fascinating but also distracting at times. Perhaps these choices are meant to express the expansive emptiness and confusion that follow a significant loss, which makes perfect conceptual sense, and the physical reality of the design is both impressive and expressive. However, in practice it becomes problematic to apply the same scope and scale to the play’s happy memories as to its painfully isolating moments. The warm scenes are what keep brownsville song from becoming too heavy-handed, but they are at risk of being lost in this large, shadowy-cornered space and might have benefitted from the spacial opportunity for more intimate presentation.
The costumes (Connie Furr Soloman) are appropriate and indicative, and the lighting (Ben Stanton) often picks up where the set has left off in creating clear boundaries and setting scenes. It also pairs brilliantly with the sound design (Jake Rodriguez) to express passage of time, exposing fully realized memories hidden in the briefest of moments. The soundscape created for this production is a significant contribution and a real accomplishment.
The actors do solid service to the script, creating well-developed characters and relationships that carry the story from start to finish. Snow stands out as grandmother Lena, the only character whose presence always manages to fully inhabit, both vocally and physically, the great spaces around her. Stewart’s Tray is funny, sweet, and naturally smooth with just enough adolescent uncertainty and male teenage bravado to make him imperfectly, undeniably likeable. We are genuinely sad to know his fate. Joshua Boone fills in the gaps nicely in various roles and delivers arguably the most moving moment of the show, a monologue in which Tray’s friend Junior explains to Lena exactly how her grandson died. Young Diallo’s Devine has a sweet and lovely chemistry with her big brother Tray. It’s hard not to smile when they play and dance together – and even harder not to tear up when she performs in her dance recital alone.
There’s no easy way to say that Jackie Chung’s Merrell stands out as the production’s weak link. But to Chung’s credit, the fault here might lie more in the character as written than in Chung’s portrayal of her. Exactly how is Merrell supposed to fit into the chronology of this story?
This character has been a homeless alcoholic for several years and is only recently back on her feet, struggling to make ends meet with the odd tutoring gig and part-time barista paycheck, yet she appears well-dressed and (despite a Brooklyn accent) somewhat polished. She looks young enough to be mistaken for high school senior Tray’s former love interest in their initial frosty interaction, but we then discover that she was his former stepmother. This would be easily explained if Tray’s father fell for a much younger woman, but the more we learn, we’re asked to believe that Merrell is old enough to have earned the four-year degree necessary to become a 9th grade English teacher; worked that job for some period of time before deteriorating slowly into alcoholism; then abandoned her 3-year-old daughter Devine, who now appears to be at least age eight, if not older. Not to mention, this college-educated former teacher, who helps Tray write a winning college scholarship essay, struggles so badly to work a Starbucks register that we’re afraid she might not hold the job. And, when instructed to wipe down the glass pastry case with Windex, she begins spraying the wood-paneled side of the cash register stand. (Although, I don’t believe it’s reasonable to hold Lee responsible for that – unless she had the opportunity to okay a line change once the production decision not to acquire a pastry case was made.)
Any one of these inconsistencies on its own would stand out in a play where the rest of the characters are all well developed. Together, they make Merrell difficult to understand or accept. Chung’s acting is as organic as possible, and she struggles to make the best sense she can out of a seemingly contradictory set of facts.
On the whole, while brownsville‘s goals are admirable, it seems to pull up just shy of attaining them. The dialogue is at times completely realistic and at times nicely poetic but never quite finds the right balance. The acting is good, but the expansive space contributes to an emotional distance between characters that seems to be overcome fully only in moments of actual physical contact between the actors – when Tray tickles Lena, when Devine dances with Tray. These moments are beautiful and engaging yet stand out because they are rare, and this does not appear to be a conscious choice. It is also unfortunate that the two most powerful scenes of the play are ones that take place off stage – Devine’s abandonment and Tray’s death.
Yet, it is a testament to Lee’s skill that she is able to craft monologues that ring so true and resonate so deeply. We live in a world where the unfair truth is that females and people of color are hugely, woefully underrepresented in the performing arts. Kimber Lee has been tapped as a potential force for change in this regard, and while brownsville song (b-side for tray) is probably not her strongest work, it may very well be an important contribution to American theatre. She is a female playwright addressing racial issues. Future productions of brownsville will offer necessary roles for minority actors. It has put some truly fantastic new monologues into the repertoire for artists of color. Modern classic this show is not, but it does serve a valuable purpose. It fills a niche and offers its place as a stepping-stone toward a better future.
brownsville song (b-side for tray)
Part of the 38th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
March 14 -April 6, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202