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During a single weekend in July of 2012 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn – just blocks from where I grew up – there were thirteen fatalities from gun violence. From this event grew Kimber Lee's remarkably powerful and personal drama brownsville song (b-side for tray), which is having its regional premiere at Manbites Dog Theater in an increasingly gentrified and costly downtown Durham. Based, obviously, on a true story, it is not just a tale of the slaughter of innocents in a far off place; events like those depicted in brownsville happen every day – including right here.
The story of Tray, the main character in brownsville, and the relationships within his family are not particularly unique, and the fate he meets is unfortunately and depressingly much too common. What is special here is playwright Kimber Lee's compelling and authentic narrative, director Jeff Storer's uncanny ability to present the story without for one moment telescoping "we are acting," and, most of all, an ensemble of very young actors who are as good as it gets.
Tray, played by Ron Lee McGill with enormous emotional range, is at a critical crossroads in his life. He has had a tumultuous life: his mother abandoned him, his father was killed, and he was briefly in jail. He lives with his grandmother and seven-year-old sister, and at age 18 he seems to be on the verge of turning his life around for good. A golden gloves boxer, hard worker, and charming young man, you could nonetheless sense the confusion, angst, and torment still within and how he personally struggles to make a better life for himself, despite what went before.
The play begins with an emotionally charged soliloquy by Lena, Tray's grandmother, played with passion, strength, and humor by Lakeisha Coffey. Spotlighted as she sits in a chair, she holds back nothing as she rages over the senseless death of her beloved Tray. This is compellingly bookended by the final scene of the play where Tray reads his college scholarship essay, finally revealing his own true voice – something he struggled with during the whole play. Some audience members were audibly weeping.
Kimber Lee employs the use of two devices that enhance the suspense and audience investment in the drama: non-linear storytelling and plenty of conflict. Scenes of Tray's life before his murder are interspersed with those of his family's life without him. Character development and revelations of relationships take time to unravel. The biggest conflict of them all comes in the return of Merrell, Tray's stepmother and the biological mother of his adored little sister Devine, who was abandoned at the age of three by Merrell. Played by Wanda B. Jin with great compassion, Merrell was written and comes across as simply another victim of the great chasm between "haves" and "have-nots" (to use probably archaic terms) and social injustice. She has done horrible things in the past but is now genuinely trying to do what's right. Despite this, Lena still cannot forgive her and their scenes are rife with tension and insults (kind of like the Republican presidential candidates).
Gabrielle Scales, a freshman at Durham School of the Arts, is triumphantly making her professional stage debut in this production as Devine, possibly the saddest character in the play. Her interplay with Tray is magical and after his death she becomes practically catatonic, including thinking she still sees him.
Lazarus Simmons convincingly played several small character roles, but it was his portrayal as Junior that was most germane to the story. A longtime friend of Tray's, Junior was thought of as a bad influence and is blamed, indirectly, for Tray being shot to death. The scene between Junior and Lena was specially gripping as Junior describes the code of the streets and the fact that Tray was killed merely for "points."
There is some nicely played, and badly needed, comic relief in brownsville, especially in a scene at the Starbucks where Tray is an assistant manager and is training Merrell. There is also a powerfully confrontational scene, perhaps the apex of the play, between those two when Merrells come in to apply for the job.
The set, by longtime Manbites Dog associate Derrick Ivey, is a wonderfully atmospheric and minimalist design. Its neatly contained lines and faux marble surfaces are the antithesis of what is usually associated with stories like this. The underlying, nearly constant, ambient sounds of the city also give brownsville an authentic feel.
This production comes as close to perfect as I have seen at Manbites Dog and possibly anywhere. As good as every facet of this production is, it is McGill in the lead as Tray who, if there is any theatrical justice, is on his way to stardom. His realistic range of emotions was stunning and he never seemed to be "acting." His effect on the audience was palpable and lasting.
Highly recommended. Yes, there is a gazillion dollar industry called Lion King going on just blocks away, but also give this local gem a try. It will make you ponder the "Circle of Life" in a completely different way.