One of the remarkable things that playwright Kimber Lee does in her stunning and heart-wrenching play, “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which is running through April 19 at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, is to depict the impact of gun violence in the lives of young black me without firing a shot on stage.
All too often, playwrights arbitrarily insert some gun violence into a play to produce a shock, to add some theatricality or to come up with a suitable climax when nothing else seems to be working. Yes, it can produce some suspense or wake up a slumbering audience member, but it can equally seem unnecessarily tacked on, as if the playwright didn’t know what to do next and was taking an easy way out. But not Ms. Lee. No gun is even seen in her play, perhaps saving her from Chekhov’s dictum that an on-stage gun must be fired, yet by the end, the audience understands how the violence in neighborhoods such as the Brownsville section of Brooklyn can destroy the even the most promising, earnest lives.
She accomplishes that by taking us deep into the life of Tray, an 18-year old black man being raised by his devoted grandmother, Lena, during the late spring and summer as he prepares to go to college. As played by Curtiss Cook, Jr., Tray is an accomplished intelligent young man, well-versed in and comfortable functioning in the urban street culture of his community, yet simultaneously serving as the beloved father-figure and mentor to his step-sister, the nine-year old Devine, who is also being raised by Lena. Cook exudes a tangible charisma that more than explains Devine’s hero worship of her step-brother and adds a special charge of believable affection in all the scenes Cook shares with young Kaatje Welsh, who fills Devine with a delightful mix of childhood awe and growing assertiveness.
The twist here is that from the very beginning we know that Tray has been killed, though we won’t learn the exact circumstances until a bit later in this breathtaking one-act, 85-minute play. And as the play progresses through an easily followed series of flashbacks, the story keeps upending what we may have come to expect from a plot about urban violence. For as Lena says, “he was not the same old story,” and Lee lets us see why. For in addition to working nights and weekends outside of school, Tray also serves as friend and supporter for his long absent Korean-American step-mother Merrell, who is trying to end her cycle of addiction and poverty by getting a job and even pursuing an education. Cook allows us to see a deep compassion that exists within Tray, who at some point had enjoyed a strong relationship with his stepmother and who hopes to restore the relationship between Merrell and Devine.
At its most essential essence, “brownsville song” is a family saga, a story of resilience amidst the face of tragedy, and reconciliation amidst disappointment. Under Eric Ting’s immaculate direction, our hearts just break knowing of the circumstances that will befall this family and this particular, admirable, struggling, typical young man, yet simultaneously we are lifted up by Lee’s generous depiction of her characters and the heart and soul that fill the various relationships.
In addition to Cook, Ting has assembled a marvelous cast who inhabit these characters with a searing reality, notably Catrina Ganey, as the no-nonsense Lena, who opens the play with an emotional monologue that conveys her pride in her grandson as the depth of her grief slowly surfaces. Ganey exudes a cautious warmth as Lena advises, scolds and disciplines Tray and Devine, as well as a defiant resolution when dealing with her former daughter-in-law. Young Welsh captures young Devine’s curiosity, enthusiasm and occasional diffidence in an appealing and genuine manner.
Sung Yun Cho is also fine as the struggling but earnest Merrell, revealing the woman’s acute awareness of her limitations and the effect that her absence has had on her children, as well as a tentative determination to get her life in order and seek out the family ties that may enable her to succeed. Anthony Martinez-Briggs has several brief but effective scenes as the self-confident Junior, a pal of Tray’s representing both the street culture of the surrounding neighborhood and the temptations that Tray has been able to avoid as he has grown up. Martinez-Briggs’ presence and demeanor adds an atmosphere of suspense and tension as the audience ponders what exactly happened to Tray. He also pops up in a later scene as an NYU student in the coffee shop where Tray is orienting his stepmother to a job he has helped her to obtain.
Scott Bradley’s compact set design adds a feeling of claustrophobia to the family’s living quarters with a small kitchen into which Devine’s or Tray’s bedroom can slide for some sweetly intimate scenes between various family members. Russell H. Champa’s lighting not only showcases various locations within the home, but accommodates various outside locations and times, including Devine’s school, Tray’s place of work and the local streets, which helps maintain the play’s steady motion back and forth through time and space. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has outfitted the cast accurately and unobtrusively.
The power of Lee’s play lies in its ability to convince us of the potential and possibility that existed for Tray, which thanks to Ting, Curtiss and the entire cast, the audience can palpably understand. We find ourselves rooting for Tray and his family, mourning his loss and remaining hopeful for the new redefined relationships among those he leaves behind. Despite its subject matter, “brownsville song” can frequently be a funny, affirming work that reminds us of the importance of close connections that help us understand the frequently tragic twists and turns of modern life and give us the support to keep moving forward.
For information and tickets, contact the Long Wharf box office at 203.787.4282 or visit the theater’s website at www.longwharf.org.