If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Inner City Life Explored at Long Wharf
A familiar slice of urban life and death is currently being offered at the Long Wharf Theatre with Kimber Lee’s new play, “brownsvile song (b-side for tray)”. The drama, a co-production with the Philadelphia Theatre Company directed by Long Wharf’s Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, is a well-meaning but ultimately disappointing and lightweight offering.
Set in and around the Brownsville and East Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn, “brownsville song” is introduced by Lena (Catrina Ganey), a formidable woman of color raising her grandchildren Tray (Curtiss Cook Jr.), an amateur boxer looking to go to college and Devine (Kaatje Welsh), his devoted little sister. We immediately learn from Lena that Tray will die, a victim of gang violence, and the play initially seems to be about the countless, faceless deaths of young black men that occur far too often in this country. But as Lee’s play settles down skipping around in time to detail Tray’s final days, it comes across more like a simplistic R-rated “Afterschool Special”.
Most of the casting at Long Wharf doesn’t help. Catrina Ganey has the acting chops to play Lena, a character who instantly recalls the matriarch in “Raisin in the Sun” and a familiar archetype utilized in dozens of plays and movies. George C. Wolfe’s brilliant “The Colored Museum” from 1986 even included a parody of this stereotype and I’m afraid Ganey has done little to make the woman fresh or original for 2015. I will, however, give Ganey credit for bringing a distinct energy and drive to the proceedings something that is lacking in the remaining cast members. Mr. Cook works very hard throughout to play a tough street kid but it never really rings true. He has all the moves without ever fully inhabiting the role. Miss Welsh spends much of the play as a silent observer which is probably for the best while Sung Yun Cho is sympathetic but flat playing her absent mother, a recovering addict. Rounding out the mediocre company is Anthony Martinez-Briggs playing two roles, neither memorably.
There’s a missed opportunity here where the playwright could have provided fresh and timely commentary about the plight of African-American families being torn apart by gang violence and drugs, but Lee’s story meanders without much purpose and the innate tragedy of the situation never seems real. Scott Bradley’s set design makes Lena’s kitchen suitably shabby but it has trouble adapting comfortably into other scenes called for by the play. Russell H. Champa’s lighting and Ryan Rumery’s sound are serviceable. The play concludes with what should be a poignant speech by Tray about the bright future he will never have, but it left this particular viewer dry-eyed and unmoved.
“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” continues at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through April 19, 2015. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: ww.longwharf.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.