REVIEW | Kimber Lee’s Flawless ‘brownsville song’ Premieres

A young black man from a poor neighborhood is killed by another young man. This tragedy is not seen by the world outside the neighborhood as extraordinary. A family is left to grieve, while that young man – could he have been extraordinary? – his name fades. This inattention is a collective failure that playwright  Kimber Lee seeks to dismantle in “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which made its world premiere last night in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. 

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is a fictional story inspired by a true account of a promising young boxer killed in a random act of violence in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Directed by associate artistic director Meredith McDonough, “brownsville song” is the strongest Humana Festival world premiere in my recent memory – a flawless staging of a fully-realized script equally fluent in grief and hope.

The play opens on Lena (Cherene Snow), grandmother of Tray (John Clarence Stewart) and Devine (Sally Diallo, who at ten years old is already a force to be reckoned with on stage), mourning Tray’s death, already frustrated that the audience will enter the story with her, not her grandson, whom we then meet in flashbacks and sleights-of-memory. Snow’s powerful performance anchors this production, grounding the younger actors who orbit lightly and gracefully around her.

Tray is a recent high school graduate, a Golden Gloves champ who works at Starbucks, looks after his little sister while his grandmother works two jobs, and is applying for scholarships to attend college in the fall. So the play says this is an extraordinary kid we’ve lost, and Stewart’s performance makes us feel it. But the play also says there is nothing particularly uncommon about Tray. He likes loud music and video games and his phone, he’s not really enthusiastic about writing essays, and while he’s mostly reliable, sometimes he slips up. He’s not perfect. He’s just a good guy. And isn’t that tragedy enough?

Tray has worked through the kind of trauma that sends some kids running for the distractions of destruction, but he emerged strong and focused with a sense of humor intact. When his stepmother Merrell (Jackie Chung) re-enters his life after a long absence, he demonstrates an uncommon grace. Lee’s command of storytelling is particularly strong when weaving Merrell’s history into the family’s story – we slowly learn how and why she left, where she was, and what the true impact of her re-emergence on Lena and the kids really is.

When we finally learn how Tray’s murder happened, in a devastating scene between his friend Junior (Joshua Boone) and Lena, Lee shows how violence can beget violence, how even good intentions can perpetuate that cycle and how truly difficult it is to break, especially when justice seems like an abstract fairy tale. But we feel the family’s loss most keenly through young Devine, who has not weathered the traumas of her younger life as well, and retreats into a dreamlike state when the world threatens to overwhelm her. It’s not an easy role for a young kid to play, and Diallo’s a charismatic actor who has found the perfect balance between joy and fear, the tremulous line Devine has walked every day of her life.

The design team on “brownsville song” deserves a standing ovation. Dane Laffrey’s cinderblock set, with a moving wall that expands and contracts the set’s interior spaces, changes visibly with the tone of each scene thanks to Ben Stanton’s lighting design, which also frames Devine’s waking dreams as apart from the reality of the play. Sound designer Jake Rodriguez weaves the cityscape sounds seamlessly through the scenes, which are punctuated with dramaturgically on-point music selections, including an anthemic remix of Brownsville natives M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” and a gorgeous hip hop version of the swans’ theme from “Swan Lake.”

The play is firmly rooted in the rhythms of Brooklyn, but at the same time, the story transcends place. Here is a young man like any other young man, murdered, his potential spent in the dust. Here is his grandmother, his baby sister, his stepmother, his friend, shattered in the wake. Here is a family hoping to heal around this wound, to knit itself tighter around its scars. The question then is put back to the audience – what will we do with the reminder that every neighborhood is filled with families doing the best they can to make a life for themselves, who can do everything right and still lose?

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is the playwright’s first Humana Festival play. Credit to Actors Theatre for giving plays that ask tough questions a start in the Humana Festival, and for championing writers like Lee on such a high-profile stage. 

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