Louisville continues to react to a series of violent incidents last weekend, when a gathering of teens at a Waterfront Park vigil for a youth stabbed on a TARC bus became volatile, and attendees allegedly committed several acts of violence throughout downtown.
Meanwhile, downtown at Third and Main streets, the 38th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays is underway at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
These two stories aren’t usually connected. But one of the plays making its world premiere in the festival is “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” a powerful drama about an African American teen victim of gang violence.
The play offers a thoughtful and emotional counterpoint to dominant media narratives about poor minority communities and their youth’s relationship to violence. Its world premiere in Louisville is, unfortunately, a timely event.
Playwright Kimber Lee is a fighter. Literally—the soft-spoken, University of Texas MFA graduate is also a boxer. She has written about her sport of choice in “fight,” a play about a young woman who trains at the same gym her estranged father once ruled. Lee, who lives in New York and holds the Lark / Playwrights of New York fellowship, likes to read the blogs of other female boxers for encouragement and inspiration.
One day, she read a story by a fighter who coaches and mentors young athletes in a poor section of Brooklyn that she couldn’t let go.
“It was just a single page about this young man who was a really vital member of their community at the gym that they had lost,” Lee says. “It was very simply expressed, but the way she described him, that he was this quiet, thoughtful young man, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Lee had been working on another script, but when she went back to write, she couldn’t shake the thought of this young man and the community that lost him. The monologue that became the first scene of “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” came out instead.
The Wall of Silence
In Lee’s play, Lena is the grandmother of Tray, a promising young African American boxer murdered by a gang member who mistakes him for a member of a rival crew. It is her voice that opens the show with a powerful and raw expression of mourning.
“The grief of the grandmother touches everything in the play,” Lee says. “And the motion of the play is to try to figure out what has happened and why.”
This is Lena, mourning her grandson:
I got words crowdin up from my belly
Through my neck
Shoving my mouth into the same shape
Formin the same out loud thought over and over
HE WAS NOT
HE WAS NOT
HE WAS NOT
Been scooped out like a jack o lantern
Carved up and
Emptied of every thought but one
He was not
“It came from a feeling of pushing against this massive wall of silence that had settled around this event, that there was this sense that (the boy’s death) didn’t matter because he was from Brownsville,” says Lee. “And everyone just expects that’s what’s going to happen in a place where there is known to have violence, that it’s this everyday thing that’s forgotten so quickly.”
The play is set in Brownsville, a small, working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. This isn’t the affluent, creative-class playground Brooklyn we see on shows like “Girls.” Brownsville has one of the country’s highest concentrations of public housing. And in a city where record low rates of serious crimes have been the recent trend, Brownsville still has a problem with violent crime.
A 2012 New York Times story paints a portrait of a close-knit neighborhood whose at-risk youth are often swept up in gang-related violence (“They’re only kids,” the story quotes Vincent Mattos, a neighborhood salon and barber shop owner, as saying. “They’re not organized gangs. This started out from these kids’ being bored.”).
“(Brownsville) is a neighborhood that has traditionally been known for a lot of struggle,” Lee explains. “It’s also a very vibrant place, and there are a lot of good things happening there within the community, but there are also a lot of struggles that have happened there.”
But as the title promises, Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” shows a side of the neighborhood that you’re not necessarily going to see in the news. This is the story of a good kid making his way in a neighborhood where violence is one method struggling people, including his childhood friends, can use to claim power, and that violence affects everything and everyone in the community.
“(The b-side) is the song people have usually never heard of,” says Lee. “It can be forgotten about because it wasn’t the big hit.”
The Flip Side
The play begins after Tray’s death, but then moves back and forth in time so the audience meets and falls in love with Tray, who is both typical (he likes his music loud, he’s a little mouthy, he’s preoccupied with himself) and extraordinary in the grace he demonstrates in navigating a highly stressful environment.
In Lee’s play, the community violence is a legacy—Tray’s own father was shot years ago. He and his little sister are being raised by their grandmother Lena, who has worked tirelessly with Tray (on top of her two jobs) to put him on the path out of this cycle, after an initial bout of bad behavior in the aftermath of his father’s murder.
And it works—Tray is a Golden Gloves champ and a college-bound high school graduate applying for scholarships, working at Starbucks, taking care of his little sister, staying out of the neighborhood power plays that preoccupy his old friends.
But as it turns out, it doesn’t matter that, as Lena says in the opening monologue, “he was not”—not a troublemaker, not a target, not any of the labels put on victims of violence in poor minority neighborhoods that go unsaid in her monologue, but not unexpressed. He was not supposed to be shot by a gang member. But he was.
And when Lena confronts Junior, the neighborhood friend who witnessed Tray’s murder, he is painfully candid with her about what happened, and why, and what he will do next. There is no expectation of legal justice for Tray’s murder, only the sinking feeling that the violence will soon claim Junior, too.
Continuing the Conversation
Southern Rep in New Orleans recently awarded Lee the Ruby Prize for New Play Development for “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” and that, along with a high-profile world premiere in the Humana Festival, suggests the play is well-positioned to have a robust life in American theatre. It’s a fully-realized and powerful drama that also happens to be an important and timely work giving voice to a segment of the community not often reflected on stage.
Theatre’s great power lies in its ability to transport the audience into someone else’s world. That act of empathy, of caring about whether a character lives or dies, can, in its best moments, carry over into the waking life. Brownsville might be hundreds of miles from Louisville, but Louisville has its own neighborhoods that struggle with poverty-induced crime, and its own Trays and Juniors who have to walk the line between promise and ruin every day. As the city continues to look for ways to cultivate a safer environment for at-risk youth to thrive, this play can help start and shape conversations, too.