Review: “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” by Kimber Lee. Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. With Denise Burse, Chinaza Uche, Tyler Trerise, Vanessa Kai and alternating in the role of Divine, Leah DeLynn Dual and Catherine Ting Karman. Now through April 24, 2016 at the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep.
Seattle Repertory Theatre has been on a bit of roll this season with several strong productions including last fall’s Buyer & Cellar and Come From Away and this winter’s controversial Disgraced and crowd pleasing meta romance Constellations. But, their just ended production of Luna Gale, a domestic soap opera enlivened by a starry performance from Pamela Reed was a misstep and I’m afraid I might have to say something similar about their just opened new production of Kimber Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray)“. It’s a heartfelt and poignant look at a young black man of great promise who is gunned down in New York City’s gritty Brownsville neighborhood. “brownsville” is an emotionally wrought story that has a terrific dramatic opening scene, a bitter and wrenching monologue from the victim’s grandmother and it ends with another brilliantly written declaration from Tray himself. But, despite some interesting directorial choices from Juliette Carrillo, best remembered in Seattle for her award winning work on another African-American play staged at the Rep, The Brothers Size in 2011, this play stumbles during the hour and a half in between those two strong book ending moments.
Part of the problem with “brownsville” is that it does tend to rely on too many overly familiar dramatic archetypes including the “strong African American mother” figure and a child who refuses to accept the death of a loved one. There’s also a curious lack of drama and energy to the proceedings that’s partly the result of Kimber Lee’s use of time shifts to tell the story; it never feels very dramatic and frequently just feels awkward and forced. The play opens with that powerful moment of the grieving grandmother/care giver, Lena, who implores…the audience? the playwright? to not begin this story with HER, but with Tray himself. After that, we quickly bounce around to moments that happen BEFORE Tray is gunned down, as well as immediately after as his family deals with his death. It’s an old device for dramatic narrative, but it just feels sluggish here. The running time of “brownsville” is an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, but it desperately could use some tightening and would play better with at least 10 to 15 minutes of trimming.
There’s also a lack of characters to give this story any depth. A huge problem with contemporary play writing is that university play writing programs are drilling it into graduate student’s heads that they MUST keep their character lists lean and mean…professional theater companies can’t/won’t produce shows with more than 5 or six actors in them. As a result, we’re being given a generation of lean, bland, underfed shows that could use more characters to tell the story. “brownsville” has a cast list of five: Tray himself, his grandmother, his little sister, his best friend, and his former stepmother, Merrell who fled the family after the death of her husband/Tray’s dad and her subsequent descent into addiction. Cleaned up, Merrell is trying to find her way back into the family by becoming Tray’s tutor and helping him with an essay to win a valuable college scholarship.
Frankly, Merrell’s story isn’t that interesting and since it becomes a major thread in this play, it sort of derails the narrative about Tray. Her story might be more effective if it was just one of several narratives, but we’re only given a couple through lines to care about and follow. The little sister character is sweet but she’s just there to BE sweet. The grandmother character is just there to be the strong female life force character. The best friend character is largely wasted with only one decent scene, where he explains to Lena, the grandmother, what happened the day Tray was murdered. The character, the scene (and the strong performance of Tyler Trerise in the role) added much needed energy and tension to the play. It’s too bad that character wasn’t further integrated into the story…the play suffers as a result.
“brownsville” is a well meaning work with strong performances from Denise Burse as Lena and Chinaza Uche as Tray, though I’ll note Mr. Uche seems to be pushing it age wise to be playing an 18 year old…his mature appearance reads more like 28 than 18. Young Catherine Ting Karman as Devine, the little sister, was appropriately adorable in a role that largely requires her to be just that…adorable but with little other purpose.
I didn’t really relate to Vanessa Kai’s work as Merrell, the step mom trying to worm her way back into the family. I don’t think it’s the fault of the actress but the way the role is written. Merrell is supposed to be awkward but the role seems to be awkwardly written as well…the character just feels plunked into the show in an attempt to add another bit of drama.
“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” has its poignant moments…both the beginning scene and the end will have many people teary eyed, and the scene between the grandmother and the best friend had great power as well, but it’s a case of three powerfully vibrant moments propelling the flatness of many of the other scenes. Due to those narrative flaws, I’m afraid “brownsville”, despite its elegiac intent, is a bit of a miss for me.