THEATER REVIEW: “brownsville song (b-side for tray)’ @ Dobama Theatre by Roy Berko

Through Sun 9/24

Those familiar with the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn think of such words as “ghetto,” “murder,” “rape” and “crime.” It’s the kind of place that only makes the news when bad things happen.

It’s an area where elderly black women find themselves on television dabbing their eyes as they are interviewed after a grandson, whom they are bringing up, has been killed as a result of gang or drive-by violence.

Kimber Lee, the author of the social drama brownsville song (b-side for tray), which is now in its regional premiere at Dobama, based her drama on a 2012 murder in Brownsville. It centers on 21- old student athlete and amateur boxer, Tray Franklin Grant, who was killed during a gang conflict in which he had no role.

Lee says she first read about Grant on the blog of Sarah Deming, a writer and one-time boxer who’d tutored him. “She said he didn’t want to talk about his struggles,” Lee recalls. “She felt it would make him seem like he was complaining. Yes, Tray had problems, one of which was losing his father — in the same way he’d die, actually. But he felt like, ‘You know what, I have a good life.’ He had a quiet strength. That just stayed with me.”

In an interview before the show premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival, the first big production of one of her scripts, she indicated that time moves when you experience grief and loss. “Yes,” she stated, “The play is about loss and grief, but it is really about the vibrant relationship between members of the family.”

The script, which flows easily from past to present and back again, is written with a lyrical tone.   Lee, in the play’s preface, gives the actors and director this advice, “The aliveness of the play lives in the rhythm and flow of the language, which includes the syncopation of the pauses and silences. Those spaces should be just as full and driving forward with the need of the characters as the words.”

She continues, “Because the story pivots around a deep loss, there may be a tendency to sink into that emotion, but this should be resisted. The scenes, even the ones after Tray’s death, must drive forward, as we all must do in life even in the midst of heartbreak.”

Ms. Lee’s argues in almost rap-like sounds against treating the next neighborhood death as just one more statistic. But the need is to understand the tragic loss of a whole generation of young black men to death and/or the prison system. (“Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of prison inmates.” “One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.” “Forty percent of African-American males 15-34 who died were murdered, making it the highest cause of death for this group.”)

The story centers on Tray, a spirited biracial young man. He is estranged from his Korean-American mother, Merrell (Cindy Chang), being raised, along with his nine-year old sister Devine (Logan Dior Williams), by Lena (Lisa Louise Langford), his African-American grandmother. He is a “good” boy. He is hard-working, gets good grades, has been accepted to college and is a protective father-figure for his sister.

Merrell slinks along the edges of their lives, having lost them due to her ongoing battle with sobriety.   After more than one dive into rehab, it appears that she is finally getting her life together.Unfortunately, we watch in horror as a shining light of what black young men can be is destroyed in yet another senseless black on black murder.

Dobama’s production, under the guidance of Jimmie Woody, is in many ways superlative. The show starts with a heart-breaking, mesmerizing monologue by Langford. Throughout she continues to develop a textured, meaningful image of a woman fighting for a world that should be, needs to be fair, but unfortunately isn’t. She doesn’t portray Lena, she is Lena.

Though he sometimes substitutes yelling for deep emotional feelings, which would be better served by underplaying and pauses rather than loud projection, Cleveland School of the Arts senior Jabri Little is excellent as Tray. He displays a nice glow of vulnerability and instinctive intelligence that helps create a meaningful character.

Chang molds a nice touch of vulnerability with desperation in making Merrell real. Both young Ms. Williams and Kalim Hill, in the dual roles of Junior and BC student, are believable.

The technical aspects of the production are superlative. Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski has taken a script which calls for multiple settings and created sliding screen and set pieces on wagons that flow in and out to the well-selected music by sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor. The staging is accented by Marcus Dana’s lighting design. T. Paul Lowry’s impressive projections transport us out of Cleveland into Brownsville and East Flatbush, New York. The entire world of brownsville song is played out before an impressive painting on the theatre’s back wall by contributing artist John “Skyline” Davison.

Ms. Lee includes in the preface of the play the words of James Baldwin (Nothing Personal): “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is a fitting memorial to the sad tales of the Trays of the world!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Dobama, Cleveland’s fine off-Broadway professional theater, opens its 2017-2018 season with a mesmerizing production of Kimber Lee’s “must see” script. Generally well-directed, often superlatively acted, this is drama at its finest! The opening night standing ovation was well-deserved.

Brownsville song (b-side for tray) runs through Sun 9/24 at Dobama Theatre. Call 216-932-3396 or dobama.org for tickets.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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