Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

brownsville song (b-side for tray)
Philadelphia Theatre Company

Catrina Ganey and Curtiss Cook Jr.
I went to Philadelphia Theatre Company's brownsville song (b-side for tray) expecting a hard night. My impression was that the play would be a dissertation on some of America's most important social issues: inner city poverty, gun violence, the disappearance and marginalization of a generation of African-American men. All important issues that need to be addressed—but would I really want to spend 90 minutes watching them dramatized? Even the play's title seemed mournful and unappealing.

As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. Yes, Kimber Lee's play deals with those issues, and doesn't pull any punches. It's realistic—at times, sadly and scarily so. But at its heart, it's about a family—a family which, after its resilience is put to the test, survives with its dignity and its hope intact. By putting faces on the statistics, and by refusing to settle for easy answers, brownsville song—a co-production with New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre—rises above its disheartening premise to become a compelling, and sometimes uplifting, piece of work.

Tray, the play's central character, is a high school senior in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He lives with his younger half-sister Devine and their demanding but devoted grandmother Lena. In the play's opening monologue, Lena informs the audience that Tray has been killed at age eighteen, an innocent bystander struck down by a hail of bullets. But she urges her listeners not to treat him as a number, and by leaping back and forth in time across Tray's last few months, Lee reveals Tray's humanity, faults and all. We see Tray supporting his devoted sister and working hard to become a boxer, yet wanting to take the easy way out on a tough scholarship essay. His tutor, Merrell, gives him a hard time about that, but he gives her a hard time too—he holds a grudge against her over her past behavior. As brownsville song gradually reveals more about Tray, it also reveals more about Merrell—her struggle with drug addiction and her complex and fractured relationship with Tray's family. All the while, Tray works hard to rise above his surroundings: "Poor black boy from the violent ghetto. That ain't my life. Ain't gon' be my life."

The story of brownsville song may seem predictable, especially since Tray's death is revealed so early. And some of the elements are too familiar; the tough, no-nonsense grandmother may seem like one you've seen many times before. But the story is told well, with vivid and genuine dialogue, and the characters are given rich dimensions. Eric Ting's direction balances the bitter and the sweet without giving in to either extreme, and the time jumps never become confusing.

Catrina Ganey's riveting performance as Lena—angry and anguished, convincing and comical, forceful without going over the top—gives the production much of its power. Curtiss Cook Jr. is restrained and authentic as Tray, and Kaatje Welsh's performance as Devine is nicely disciplined—under Ting's direction, Devine's relationship with Tray is sweet without getting too sugary. Anthony Martinez-Briggs shines in a comic turn as an effete Brooklyn hipster. Only Sung Yun Cho, as Merrell, disappoints; she's too poised to be credible as an unstable recovering addict. Scott Bradley's muted set and Russell H. Champa's stark lighting set the mood effectively.

There are parts of Tray's life that Lee's play doesn't explore enough: Tray's interest in boxing, his friendship with neighborhood gang member Junior (Martinez-Briggs again). And the final scene sends the audience out on too high a note, with an almost-happy ending that doesn't feel earned. But brownsville song makes the case that Tray led an important life because of the impact he made on those around him. It's a lesson that needs to be repeated—and hearing about it in a slogan like "Black Lives Matter" just isn't enough. Without getting preachy or didactic, brownsville song shows us why all lives matter, and why they continue to resonate even when they're over.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) runs through May 31, 2015, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $ 46 - $59, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or in person at the box office.

Photo: Paola Nogueras

-- Tim Dunleavy

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