Constant headlines about deadly urban violence can become numbing – until they involve someone you know.
Audiences get to know one young victim and his family intimately in Kimber Lee’s 2014 play, “brownsville song (b-side for tray).” Manbites Dog Theater’s moving production makes the tragedy so personal you won’t soon forget those involved or its senselessness.
Tray, an 18-year-old African-American living in Brooklyn’s crime-ridden Brownsville neighborhood, aspires to a better life. He’s a talented boxer encouraged by his coach to apply for college. He’s a devoted brother to his fragile-minded younger sister, Devine, and a rebellious but respectful grandson to his strict “Grams,” Lena. She’s raised the siblings after Merrell, Devine’s mother and Tray’s stepmother, abandoned them years ago for a life on drugs.
Merrell suddenly comes back into Tray’s life to make amends by helping him with his application essay. But shortly after finishing it, Tray is shot dead on the street, a casualty of “killing points” earned by street gangs.
Revealing Tray’s death is no spoiler because it’s in the play’s first lines as Lena struggles to speak about her grief (“I feel scooped out like a pumpkin”). Her gripping monolog is the first indication of the script’s gut-wrenching impact, aided by Lakeisha Coffey’s heart-rending characterization of Lena’s fierce love for her grandchildren and her bitterness over things beyond her control.
From there, the script alternates before and after Tray’s death, smoothly dovetailed by director Jeff Storer on Derrick Ivey’s cold, black and gray unit set.
Ron Lee McGill warmly projects Tray’s sensitive side in playful scenes helping Devine overcome her obsessive shyness. He also displays Tray’s true love for Lena, despite his frequent chaffing under her iron hand. At Thursday’s preview, McGill was still working out Tray’s anger and hurt, often expressing them physically rather than from within and speaking at an indistinct clip.
Wanda B. Jin makes a sympathetic Merrell, desperately seeking reconnection and forgiveness. Lazarus Simmons has one of the most moving scenes as Tray’s friend, Junior, who must tell Lena his role in Tray’s death. Gabrielle Scales capably defines Devine’s retreats into her own secret world.
Some scenes come across as contrived in their attempts to impart background information and the constant profanity become wearying. Lee also overuses dialog in which characters cut their sentences off half-formed. But this story of promise unfulfilled exposes such affecting truths that it’s all but required viewing.
What: “brownsville song (b-side for tray)”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 8:15 p.m. Feb. 26-27, Mar. 3-5, Mar. 9-12; 2 p.m. Feb. 28; 7:30 p.m. Mar. 6
Tickets: $12-$20 (seniors/military $2 off; students $5-$10)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org