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“brownsville song (b-side for tray)”

Long Wharf Theatre

It is not giving anything away to reveal that the main character in “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” Kimber Lee’s intelligent and engrossing drama currently playing at Long Wharf Theatre, is deceased at the beginning of the play. That main character is named Tray, a gifted and promising young black man who was gunned down simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than creating a linear story leading up to Tray’s death, the playwright’s aim is more to show just how devastating a loss of a life like this can be.

Told in a series of flashbacks, “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” examines Tray’s life and the important people in it and paints a portrait of a young man who had everything going for him. As sad as the description of this play sounds, I should hasten to mention that “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is anything but a downer. Thanks to a quintet of fine performances, superb direction by Eric Ting, and Kimber Lee’s incisive writing, this play is more a celebration of this young man’s life, and ultimately offers a faint hope that, perhaps, by presenting a work like “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” onstage, a tragedy like this could possibly be averted.

The play opens in the kitchen (beautifully designed by set designer Scott Bradley) of Tray’s grandmother Lena. As portrayed by the wonderful Catrina Ganey, Lena is most definitely a tower of strength and she helps anchor the play from the opening moments. As mentioned, “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” jumps back and forth in time through flashbacks, occasionally with some scenes that overlap. We are able to see Tray (perfectly played by Curtiss Cook Jr.) living his life and trying to do the right thing, by concentrating on his boxing, working at his Starbucks job, and attempting to write an essay that will win him a scholarship to college.

In addition to Lena, there are other people important to Tray in the show. There is, most significantly, his younger sister Devine. Though she says relatively little during the course of the production, the talented Kaatje Welsh is able to show, through her actions, that Devine has had a difficult childhood, with her older brother being a beacon of light for her. One thing that I liked especially about “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is that the playwright only gradually reveals the family structure and history of Tray and Devine and their grandmother Lena (and what they have been through) through a series of short, illuminating scenes.

The cast is rounded out by the characters of Junior (the effective Anthony Martinez-Briggs), as Tray’s best friend and also by the superb Sung Yun Cho, as Merrell, whose relationship to the family remains something of a mystery (at least to me) until well into the play. But, again, that is something that I found so refreshing about Kimber Lee’s writing: as crafted by the playwright, “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” almost takes the form of a jigsaw puzzle, with the different pieces carefully filled in during the play’s ninety minute running time.

As it happens, “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” culiminates in a scene (not to be revealed here) that is simultaneously the most triumphant, as well as being the saddest in the play. It is a credit to both director Eric Ting and playwright Kimber Lee, as well as the flawless cast, that Long Wharf Theatre’s production of this work can walk that fine line between anguish and hope, and ultimately shine a ray of light into a play that otherwise would be unrelentingly grim. For that reason alone, it is worth journeying to Long Wharf Theatre to experience the illuminating power of “brownsville song (b-side for tray).”

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through April 19, 2015. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at (203) 787-4282.

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