As play titles go, “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” won’t set off a stampede at the Lincoln Center Theater box office. That’s too bad, because Kimber Lee’s heartfelt drama about the brief life and senseless death of a kid from a rough Brooklyn neighborhood has a lot to say about urban violence. Patricia McGregor’s smart helming of the play, which had its premiere at the Humana Festival earlier this year, translates the scribe’s poetic idiom into visually strong stage language, and a small but sure-footed cast gives the characters plenty of soul.
Tray (a kid worth caring about, in Sheldon Best’s charismatic perf) is already dead when the play opens. But his heartbroken grandmother Lena (a fierce Lizan Mitchell) wants it understood that “he was not the same old story” of a gang-kid punk shot down in the street by another gang kid.
That’s the signal for Andromache Chalfant’s wonderfully detailed set of a ghetto neighborhood to break apart into the multiple set pieces that define the limited space of Tray’s life. The apartment where he lived with his grandmother and eight-year-old half-sister, Devine (Taliyah Whitaker, adorable). The gym where he trained after school for the Golden Gloves. The Starbucks where he worked to save up money for college in the fall. The schoolroom where his mother, Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet), long estranged from the family but determined to make it up to Tray, is tutoring in his college application. And — impossible to escape — the dirty, noisy, graffiti-scarred and lethally dangerous street where he was carelessly shot down by a member of one of the neighborhood gangs who are constantly fighting for control of the block and its drug trade.
“Oh, well, charge it to the game,” shrugs Junior (Chris Myers), one of the tough kids Tray occasionally hung out with. His casual indifference is all the more chilling because it accurately reflects the sense of fatalism that grips the whole neighborhood. It’s that cynical disregard for human life, the scribe argues, that perpetuates the homegrown violence.
But Tray’s grandmother, inconsolable in grief, won’t accept his death in the same fatalistic spirit of the neighbors. Nor will Devine, who sees his living ghost everywhere. The rest of the play is made up of their memories of Tray and what he meant in their lives.
McGregor works in an aptly surreal style to contain the flying fragments of a remembered life. The play’s complicated structure follows a fractured time line that moves fluidly from past to present (with the help of Jiyoun Chang’s subtle lighting design), keeping Tray alive long enough for us to appreciate how very special he was.