Playwright Kimber Lee centers brownsville song (b-side for tray) on the life—not the death—of a young black man gunned down in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Tray (Chinaza Uche) is an upbeat and thoughtful and very busy college-bound dude growing up in his grandmother's house. Everyone in his life assumes he's running away from his responsibilities, but really he's running to them. He's got boxing to practice, a scholarship essay to write, a traumatized sister to take care of, a grandma (Lena, played by Denise Burse) to impress, a barista job at Starbucks to hold down, and friendships to maintain. On top of all that, Tray has to deal with the sudden reemergence in his life of his stepmother, Merrell (Vanessa Kai), the shadow of his father's death, and lots of family drama involving abandonment.
The story is told in flashbacks of Tray's last few months of life, with a grieving Lena occasionally stepping in as a narrator who is trying to make sense of the loss of Tray, who was essentially her son. In the first few lines of the play, Lena announces the paradox of sympathy Lee seems to be addressing in this drama: "He was not the same old story. He was mine. He was mine." This sentiment reminds me of a stanza from a poem by Mark Halliday called "Chicken Salad," which begins: "Everybody's father dies... But when my father died, it was my father."
Access to constant news coverage and smartphones means the names of the dead scroll down our feeds daily, reducing whole lives to headlines. A disproportionate number of those dead are young black men. It's hard to blame journalists for reporting the facts of death, but the rate of those reports can desensitize you, can make it harder to see someone else's loss as our loss, too. However, when we hear the news of death, we have the choice to focus on the fact that a person died or the fact that a person lived. Lee's play does the latter work, and so opens up channels of empathy that make it impossible to see someone as just another statistic.
Uche's solid performance reveals Tray's capacity for forgiveness, his resilience, and his humor, and I could listen to Burse not take shit from anybody for the rest of my life—but despite these excellent performances, the play moves a little ploddingly.
The main action in the play involves Tray writing a scholarship essay, which is one of the most frustrating tasks in the world because it requires you to self-aggrandize, hold out your hat, and yet somehow project authenticity. Tray is especially wary of all this—he doesn't want to play "the poor black boy from the ghetto." But "when it's other people's money, you have to," says his tutor, who just so happens to be his estranged stepmother, Merrell. Her goal in these scenes is trying to get Tray to believe in himself, which is hard for him to do for reasons I can't tell you because it would ruin everything, and involves a lot of spoken subtext and a lot of "buck up" talk. Those scenes are a little too heavy with pathos, and they don't showcase Lee's lyrical gifts, which are otherwise ample.
The question of why characters are mad at each other drives much of the tension, so there's a lot of one character saying something like "You know what you did," and then the other character saying, "I know, and I'm sorry," and then the audience going, "Uhh," and then the scene playing out until everyone gets on the same page. This kind of dialogue creates a mystery between the characters that wouldn't exist without the audience, and so ends up just feeling like the delivery of expository information and not a necessary conversation that moves the play forward. There are also a few plot points that don't flow organically from the motivations of the characters, and so seem like too-clever ways for Lee to handle a lot of exposition.
But I still got all teary and heart-melty at the end, so what do I know?