Monday, April 7, 2014

Weighing a Life in brownsville song (b-side for tray)

One of the best things about the Humana Festival of New American Plays, held annually at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is the mix of works presented. There's almost always something a little (or a lot) out there, something crazy, something sad, something sweet... And something more traditional.

This year, even though playwright Kimber Lee has given her play brownsville song (b-side for tray) an unusual title and even though the structure of the play is nonlinear and fragmented, brownsville still plays like a traditional, heartfelt, earnest piece of American theater.

It starts at the end, with a grandmother who does not want to talk about the loss of her grandson, Tray, lost to stupid, tragic violence on the streets in Brooklyn. The actions plays out in short, overlapping scenes from now and then that show us who Tray was, who was important in his life -- his little sister; the grandmother who has mostly raised the two of them; and Tray's one-time stepmother, re-entering their lives after she fell off the deep end but has tried to reclaim herself -- and the hole he's left behind. We understand that it's a tragedy that Tray is gone and we root for these conflicted, interesting people to find a way.

But brownsville never really rises above the issues presented. We are told early on that Tray is not just some statistic, one more name on the list of kids lost in America's inner-city wars. His grandmother argues that he was different, he was special, he was not just one more like all the other faceless, nameless victims. As embodied by John Clarence Stewart, Tray is charming, vibrant and alive. And in that, this story succeeds in telling us that his death was as wrong as wrong can be. 

Actors Theatre Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonought directs, eliciting fine performances from her entire cast. Cherene Snow effectively etches the grief and anger fueling Lena, the grandmother who wants Tray to be remembered, while 10-year-old Sally Diallo is adorable as Devine, the little girl who keeps getting left behind by the adults in her life. Jackie Chang does good work with the difficult role of Tray's former stepmother, but who exactly she was to Tray is unclear for much of the play, and her appearances seem coincidental and forced at times. 

And in the end... brownsville song doesn't sing. The play is earnest. Its heart is most definitely in the right place. It makes its case that random violence is tragic and terrible. But the scenes Lee has written don't build intensity or make a case for Tray beyond "just another kid," the very thing it set out to do. Yes, he was a great kid. Yes, he had a bright future. But how is that different from the others, the ones whose names we don't know? Lee's script doesn't gives us that spark.

Dane Laffrey's set, with sliding panels and moving pieces that fill all of the stage (and some offstage) spaces at the Pamela Brown Auditorium, Actors Theatre's biggest space, is slick and smooth in terms of transitions, but its size and mechanics create a certain distance from the audience, another reason brownsville doesn't make the emotional impact it's trying to achieve.

In the end, it's easy to understand the heartbreak in brownsville song (b-side for tray) but hard to truly give it your heart.

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