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brownsville song (b-side for tray)

An all-too-realistic new play by Kimber Lee makes its New York debut at LCT3.

Sheldon Best as Tray, Taliyah Whitaker as Devine, and Lizan Mitchell as Lena in Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray), directed by Patricia McGregor, at the Claire Tow Theater.
(© Erin Baiano)

Tray is an 18-year-old African-American kid from the projects who doesn't let his circumstances get him down. He's a boxer-in-training with big dreams for success. He's working on his college essay. He's a statistic. Tray is dead at the start of Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray), and his grandmother and little sister are picking up the pieces of a promising life cut short by gun violence.

In this New York premiere at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater, Lee showcases an authentic look at an all-too-common occurrence, plus the ways a family with nothing but one another copes with a loss of seismic proportions. Uncompromising in its examination of grief and big-hearted in its belief in forgiveness, brownsville song sings with the rhythms of an often-misrepresented community, following in the footsteps of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson. Like their plays, by its end brownsville song gets a tad unwieldy. But the gut punch of Patricia McGregor's staging makes up for any dramaturgical flaws.

Lee uses a nonlinear structure, moving back and forth through time, to show us Tray's last days and the ways his family moves on. Tray (Sheldon Best) wasn't in a gang, as Lena (Lizan Mitchell), his "Grams," points out in a tone-setting monologue at the top of the 90-minute drama. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tray was one of the good ones, a guy who wanted to stay out of trouble because he wanted his family to be proud of him. He was a surrogate father to his nine-year-old half-sis Devine (Taliyah Whitaker), whose mom, Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet), suddenly flew the coop after spiraling into addiction.

Perhaps if Tray had lived longer, it wouldn't have been such a big deal that he forgot to pick Devine up from dance class one day. Perhaps if Merrill hadn't disappeared, it wouldn't have been such a big deal when she suddenly showed up again, all dried out, to be Tray's writing tutor. Major questions of conscience are dropped in the laps of all the characters. The play doesn't apologize for the fact that, as in life itself, sometimes they go unanswered.

Adding to the tonal flavor is a realistic design concept capturing what you'd see on the streets in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A heavy green subway grate from Andromache Chalfant's industrial set looms over the cramped apartment where they live. Asa Wember provides a vivid New York soundscape, while Dede M. Ayite's well-worn costumes and Jiyoun Chang's harsh lighting of car headlights and halogen bulbs further the milieu.

McGregor casts her production with actors who dive headfirst into the material. As Tray, Best is an inherently likable mensch. He uses his natural charisma to his advantage, melting our hearts with his wide smile while simultaneously devastating us with the realization that this character doesn't get to fulfill his dreams. He also has a truly adorable chemistry with young Whitaker, beautifully showcased in a hip-hop remix of the Dance of the Swans from Swan Lake. (Whitaker also excels in her scenes following Tray's death, breaking hearts with her longing gaze.) Mitchell turns Lena into a no-nonsense force who uses her strength to get over her grandson's death. Chomet, as Merrill, alongside Chris Myers as a variety of characters, make strong impressions in supporting roles.

If there is any flaw in the text, it's that Lee ends the play just a bit too long after the very clearly delineated climax. Still, it makes a very powerful impact when you realize that everything Tray dreams of came true; he just wasn't there to enjoy it.

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