by Clark Groome
As important as the issues are in Kimber Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” the play is at times predictable and obvious.
It’s a play about loss in an impoverished area of Brooklyn where a mixed race family fights to survive the poverty and violence that so often lead to wasted lives.
Young Tray is being raised by his grandmother, a no-nonsense woman whose love and fears reminded me immediately of the mother whose anger at her son during the recent troubles in Baltimore captured the frustration and fear felt by so many residents of society’s most underprivileged and violent neighborhoods.
Tray is basically a good kid. He’s a fine student, a talented Golden Gloves boxer, a responsible young man who’s saving the salary from his job at Starbucks so he can by a used car. And he’s a devoted big brother to younger sister, Devine. He’s headed for college and a clear road out of the life that led to his father’s death and the drug addiction and abandonment of Devine’s mother, Merrill, a talented teacher now unemployed and just out of rehab. His major flaw, his grandmother says, is that he still drinks milk from the carton.
Throughout the 90-minute play, Tray is struggling with writing an essay for his college applications that will really capture who he is, what makes him unique. His grandmother and stepmother, who’s trying to get her life back together after her addiction problems, work with him. But it is Tray who ultimately writes a moving and impressive essay about himself.
“brownsville song,” which is getting a strong production from the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theater, 480 S. Broad St., in co-production with New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through May 31, isn’t a play that tells Tray’s story in chronological order. It jumps around — and at some point during the piece Tray, like his father, is murdered simply for the sport of it by a gang member in the neighborhood.
The play’s structure is at times confusing and at others helps to affirm the horror and waste that the senseless shooting of this young man caused for him and his family.
While it was at times a bit pretentious and stylistically contrived, it was ultimately a clear statement about what is far too frequent in our society: the shooting deaths of good young kids who have promise and hopes.
The PTC’s cast — Catrina Ganey’s Grandmother Lena, Curtiss Cook Jr.’s Tray, Kaatje Welsh’s Devine, Sung Yun Cho’s Merrill and Anthony Martinez-Briggs’ two roles — is very good. So are Eric Ting’s direction and his fine design team: Scott Bradley (set), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), Russell H. Champa (lighting) and Ryan Rumery (sound).
“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” isn’t a perfect play, but it is quite often a powerful one that deals in a unique way with the horrors of a kid lost to violence, an issue that is on the front pages and evening newscasts far too often these days.
For tickets call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.