Playwright Kimber Lee’s 2014 Off-Broadway play brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes place in the neighborhood of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, NY. Jules Odendahl-James, the dramaturg for Manbites Dog Theater’s production of the play, quotes Lee as saying that Brownsville is the kind of place that only makes the news when something bad happens. Odendahl-James says that this story is also about the recent (probably gang-related) Durham, NC murders of Jeremy “J-Berg” Lamar Turner, Dennis Lamb, Jaeden Sharpe, and — a year after Sharpe’s murder — the shooting of his father, Justin Brooks Sharpe, who recovered. She points out the disparity between daily life for families of color living at or below the poverty line and the better-off citizens of Durham.
Lee indicts systemic neglect of these murders, which — after making splashy headlines — seem to then disappear from both headlines and the memories of the public at large, but never from the hearts and minds of the victims’ families. For the families, they will never be “just another gang shooting.”
The play’s protagonist, Tray Franklin, has begun to put his life together in a quarter rife with gang activity — going to school, training seriously as a boxer, working at Starbucks, involving himself in family life, especially with his younger half-sister. When he is suddenlycut down in a gang shooting (despite having no gang affiliations), his remaining family must find a way to continue their lives.
His strong-willed grandmother, Lena, who has been a powerful force in his life, lost her son, Tray’s father, in a shooting a few years earlier. She is portrayed by Lakeisha Coffey, who brings a strength and dignity to the role that is inspiring, showing Lena’s tremendous loss and her resolve to endure and to assure that her grandson Tray will escape the cycle of poverty and crime that infects their surroundings. Her opening monologue is a heart-wrenching paean to the memory of Tray, and her refusal to be brought down by this additional loss.
Ron Lee McGill is athletic, warm hearted, concerned, and driven as the ill-fated Tray. He brings us a character so likable that it grates naggingly that we know he has died. He comes to us, conjured up by Devine, his young half-sister, as memory, and in stories told by Lena and Tray’s estranged stepmother and tutor, Merrell. McGill proves to be a fierce competitor as he shows us Tray shadow boxing, a truly scary exhibition.
Devine is shown as a reticent child by Gabrielle Scales, sad from the abandonment of her mother, and accepting of life as hard, gleaning whatever she can be happy with. Her great love and joy in her brother is amply displayed, as she turns from ennui to ecstasy, playing football with him and showing him her dance steps as a tree in Swan Lake.
Wanda B. Jin takes on the difficult role of Merrell, a former schoolteacher, who resorted to drugs and alcohol for consolation when Tray’s father was killed, and soon abandoned her family, which included her daughter Devine. Bringing the determination of recovery to the role, she is Tray’s prime motivator in writing the college application bio essay that is part of his ticket out of Brownsville.
Lazarus Simmons does fine triple-action duty in this show, giving us three distinctly different characters: Junior, Dance Teacher, and Student.
Manbites Dog artistic director Jeff Storer has directed a profound and powerful production of a well-chosen play that reflects some of the conditions of American urban life. He found an exceptional cast to tell this important story and, hopefully, help awaken us all.
Scenic designer Derrick Ivey’s set is unadorned, with the graffiti that often bedecks these parts of cities. It emphasizes the bareness of the apartment the family lives in and the barrenness of the streets. And lighting designer Andrew Parks highlights each scene, effectively directing focus to the action.
This intelligent play does not preach, but rather reminds us that behind the ephemeral headlines are three-dimensional, flesh-and-bone human beings — our neighbors whose lives are irreparably damaged while our own lives move past their stories until the next time ….
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 26th Raleigh, NC Indy Week review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article62678977.html; and Feb. 24th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/ArticleArchives?category=1179159.
Manbites Dog Theater presents BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY) at 8:15 p.m. Feb. 27, 2 p.m. Feb. 28, 8:15 p.m. March 3-5, 7:30 p.m. March 6 (Theater Night), and 8:15 p.m. March 9-12 at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $12 weeknights and $20 Friday-Sunday, except $5 weeknghts and $10 weekends for students with ID and a $2 discount for seniors 62+ and active-duty military personnel.
BOX OFFICE: 919-682-3343 or https://manbites.tixato.com/buy.
SHOW: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2015-16-season/brownsville-song/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/569009223263317/.
2015-16 SEASON: http://manbitesdogtheater.org/2015-16-season/.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/manbitestheater, and https://twitter.com/ManbitesTheater.
BLOG (The Upstager): http://theupstager.wordpress.com/.
brownsville song (b-side for tray) (2014 Actors Theatre of Louisville and 2014 Off-Broadway play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/56888/brownsville-song-b-side-for-tray (Samuel French, Inc.), https://www.playscripts.com/play/2752 (Playscripts), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5895 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Kimber Lee (New York playwright): http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/116609/kimber-lee (Samuel French, Inc. bio), https://www.playscripts.com/playwrights/bios/1578 (Playscripts bio), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/45160 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Jeff Storer (Durham director and artistic director of Manbites Dog Theater): https://theaterstudies.duke.edu/people/jeff-m-storer (Duke Theater Studies bio) and https://www.facebook.com/jeff.storer.9. (Facebook page).
Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.