The title of the play now at Dobama Theatre is brownsville song (b-side for tray). And aside from its irritating use of all lower case letters — when will people stop using lowercase letters thinking that they're being self-effacing when they're just being precious and pretentious? — the words themselves may need a bit of translating.
Brownsville is a low income and historically dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the play takes place, and Tray is short for Tremaine Thompson, the central character in this ambitious play by Kimber Lee. As for "b-side," that used to be the designation for the loser side of a 45-rpm record. (Remember those? Of course you don't.) The B-side was the side that you weren't supposed listen to, and radio DJs weren't supposed to play. As a result, they were often intentionally bad, and sometimes even recorded backwards to make them unlistenable.
In this play, the story of Tray is the A-side, featuring a profile of a young man who doesn't want his life to follow a predicable path. Working at Starbucks, training for the Golden Gloves, laboring over a college application essay and bouncing lovingly off of his grandmother Lena and 9-year-old half-sister Devine, Tray is on his way to make something of himself. Until the remorseless gears of life in Brownsville tear into him, turning Tray into another statistic.
Although the story is a familiar one, playwright Lee attempts to bring freshness to the piece by crafting a non-linear structure in which Tray is dead from the very beginning and the remainder of the play is composed of snatches of memories. Lena takes the stage at the outset and delivers a scathing, heartfelt monologue declaring that this play should not begin with her. And that her grandson was not —not! — just another data point in a study of urban violence and gang activity. He was different.
Eliding back and forth in time, we see Tray interacting with his immediate family members along with his stepmother Merrell, who abandoned her family years before while on drugs. Now she's back, trying to tutor Tray with his essay and hoping to insinuate herself back into the family's good graces. At the start, Lena is having nothing to do with Merrell, but as events progress that also changes.
Director Jimmie Woody clearly has a deep affection for this material, and he has done the play proud by casting Jabri Little as Tray and Logan Dior Williams as Devine. Little captures the restless, impulsive physicality of Tray, whether he's jabbing at his Everlast punching bag or dancing joyously with his sister as she practices her role as a tree in a school play. As Devine, Williams is nothing short of adorable, especially when she drops into a defensive boxer's crouch in imitation of her beloved brother. When Tray and Devine are on stage, the play is able to overcome some of its flaws and soar.
Those flaws include too frequent attempts at scoring thematic points as opposed to crafting character. This happens primarily with Merrell, who laces her tutorial sessions with too much dime store motivational yak. Merrell is a confusing and poorly written character, and Cindy Chang doesn't fully succeed in bringing out Merrell's true nature, since you feel the actor walking on eggshells, so she doesn't misstep, instead of relaxing into the role.
Lisa Louise Langford is very nearly a force of nature as Lena, and she tears through her lines with a pace and purposefulness that is levitating at times. Still, this Lena is a stereotype of the black matriarch who keeps everything together with a firm and loving hand. One wishes playwright Lee would have found ways to give Lena more interesting dimensions, and thereby given a performer with Langford's chops an ability to rise above the hovering cliches.
The fifth member of the cast is Kalim Hill, who plays a couple of roles. But plagued by enunciation problems, many of Hill's words go undetected. He should study Langford closely, who is totally in character and understandable at all times.
The production is played on an empty stage where specific set elements are wheeled on and off. And it is highlighted by a gorgeous painted backdrop that is enlivened between scenes by Marcus Dana's evocative lighting design and T. Paul Lowry's gorgeous, urban-infused projections. This overall scenic design by Laura Carlson Tarantowski adds immeasurably to the visual texture of the play.
One of the best decisions the playwright makes is to treat Tray's murder, after a casual street confrontation, as a remembered afterthought. This is the true Brownsville song, and it's a ballad we know all too well: a good person who is in the wrong place and, for no reason, is cut down long before their time. And soon, no matter how tragic and unfair the circumstances, the song plays on. The implications are left for all of us to consider: How do we stop the destructive music and allow shining individuals such as Tray to grow and thrive?