brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Long Wharf Theatre -- a Thought-Provoking Production

By Amy J. Barry

Tray, an African American 18-year-old living in a Brooklyn tenement, falls victim to his surroundings -- the street culture, the gang warfare, the fate of so many young black men. But brownsville song (b-side for tray) written by Kimber Lee, now on stage at Long Wharf Theatre, isn’t about Tray’s death; it’s about Tray’s life.

At the start of the play, Tray’s grandmother Lena distinguishes between what Tray was and what Tray was not.

He ain’t been in a gang
He ain’t run with no crew
He ain’t beef with nobody
He was not...
He was not the same old story
He was mine...

What follows is a sweet and sorrowful portrait of an exceptional young man, who was so much more than just another casualty of gun violence.

Kimber Lee, along with the cast and creative team, spent time in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, researching the play, talking to the residents, and it shows in the authenticity of the story.

The ensemble cast’s performances are consistently strong, guided by director Eric Ting, who brings out the best in his actors -- their compassion, their believability -- and perfectly paces the action to keep us riveted in our seats.

Curtiss Cook Jr. plays Tray, a boxing champion, who was going to college in the fall, saving up for a car, working two jobs. But, like all teenage boys, as Lena notes, he had his quirks and character faults -- like drinking milk out of the carton for all of his 18 years and being stubborn as a mule. Cook beautifully captures Tray’s essence with both intensity and humor. He will do everything not to succumb to the culture of violence surrounding him.

Catrina Ganey plays Lena, the matriarch that raised Tray and his little sister Devine most of their young lives, after the fatal shooting of their father and abandonment by Merrell—Devine’s mother and Tray’s stepmother -- a substance abuser. Ganey gives a powerhouse performance as the fiercely protective grandmother who equips Tray and Devine with a strong moral code -- despite her proclivity to cursing -- and doesn’t take any crap from anyone.

Kaatje Welsh is heartwarming as the fragile youngster who has been abandoned twice -- first by her mother and later by the accidental death of her beloved brother. Despite juggling so many responsibilities in his young life, Tray is patient and loving toward his little sister, tuned into the early trauma she experienced.

Merrell, played by Sung Yun Cho, attempts to come back into the kids’ lives now that she is out of rehab and sober. Cho is appropriately tentative and humble as she tries to build a relationship, initially with Tray. Formerly a teacher, she becomes his tutor, demanding the best from him, giving herself a second change at being a mother. The roles switch when Merrell, perhaps a little too coincidentally, becomes an employee at the Starbucks where Tray works, and he has to show her the ropes. Tray eventually lets down his guard and begins to let Merrell back into his life.

Lena is another story. She holds on tight to her anger at Merrell for her past transgressions, until she is guilty of a mistake that makes her realize that everyone is fallible. She is able to forgive Merrell, and try to heal the family.

Anthony Martinez-Briggs makes a brief but critical appearance as Tray’s friend and fellow college student, who chillingly describes the harsh reality of gang culture to Lena, while assuring her that Tray was not involved. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The play starts at the end and then goes back and forth through time, filling in the blanks, developing the characters. It’s not always clear if it’s the past or present, but that adds a magical quality, as much of our lives are spent in reconstructing memories.

Scott Bradley has done a fine job creating the well-worn, cluttered New York apartment that melds into the upscale Starbucks cafe.

Both Ryan Rumery’s sound design -- city noise, hip-hop music, and Russell H. Champa’s mood setting lighting design enhance the production.

At the end of this one-act, 95-minute play, despite the tragic outcome, we are hopeful, we care about this family, we feel their pain, and we are in awe of their courage, survival skills, and sense of humor, despite all odds. We look at the world in a different light. And that’s what makes this exceptional theater.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven, through April 19. Tickets available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

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