Thursday, April 9, 2015

Theater Review: Brownsville Song -- Long Wharf

Curtiss Cook Jr. and Catrina Ganey. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The Flip Side of Being a Statistic
By Lauren Yarger
Tray is a smart, athletic, talented young man who hopes to become a teacher. His dreams – and the world of the people who loved him – are shattered by a senseless shooting in Kimber Lee’s gripping drama brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Long Wharf Theatre.

That’s not the end of the story, his grandmother, Lena (a formidable Catrina Ganey), tells us up front. Tray (Curtiss Cook Jr) was not just another African-American young man to die from gun violence, she says. He had a life, dreams, ambitions and people who loved him. His death is not the end of the story – she is.

Lena has been trying to cope. She has been raising Tray’s sister, Devine (a sensitive Kaatje Welsh) on her own ever since the children’s mother, Merrell (Sung Yun Cho) abandoned them to her drug addictions following the death of their father – also by gunshot.

A shift back in time allows us to see all of the folks interact with Tray. Devine worships the ground he walks on. She has emotional issues since being left beside a dumpster by her mother and Tray does his best to assuage her fears by being a steady presence. The devotion he feels for the young girl in return is obvious as he helps her prepare for her big moment playing a tree in a ballet production. (Sweet Welsh makes this look wonderful).

Meanwhile, over the objections of Lena, who protectively forbids contact with Devine, Merrell re-enters Tray’s life. He hires her at the Starbucks where he works as the woman tries to rebuild her life off of drugs and deal with the guilt of abandoning the family.

Meanwhile, Lena finds out the details of Tray’s last moments from his friend, Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs). The senseless death haunts us, as well as those who loved him, because of Lee’s sensitive, honest-dialogue script and the deep, affecting performances. We feel we knew Tray and mourn his loss. Perhaps we’ll never hear about another senseless shooting without thinking about him.

Lee was inspired to write the play after hearing of an actual murder of a young boxer from Brownsville named Tray Franklin.

“On the deepest level, the play is not political, it is not about making a political statement … for me the play was in the true sense a lament and a desire to create and put onstage the experience of grief. I just, at bottom, wanted people to feel something that this boy had done. That was the driving concern I had when I was writing this play,” she said.

The various locations are staged by Director Eric Ting with the movement of some props around the set designed by Scott Bradley. It doesn’t always work effectively, but the storytelling wins out in the end.


Brownsville song is a co-production with the Philadelphia Stage Company. Here at Long wharf, ticket prices have been drastically reduced for this run in an effort to remove barriers to seeing the play. The theater also partnered with The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to host a convening on gun violence and the New Haven Free Public Library, which hosted conversations about the play at its branches, where tickets to the play were distributed. 

Brownsville plays at Long wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through April 19. Tickets $5-$40 (203) 787-4282; www.longwharf.org.

You can view a video clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9wI45sFdqk

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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