Adult Black men are absent from Kimber Lee’s play brownsville song (b-side for tray). No dads, uncles, or grandfathers appear on stage. The opening monologue is an aria of rage and despair performed by Lena (Cathleen Riddley). Both her son and her 17-year-old grandson Tray are already dead. Sitting at the center of the stage, she addresses the audience directly. Lena is accusatory: We are complicit in their deaths because of our indifference. In effect, she’s saying that Black lives matter — but not to you. Lee hopes to change that apathy by going beyond the headlines that announce the deaths of Black men of any age.
After the lyrical ferocity of this preamble, the playwright then moves the characters, and the language, directly into a mode of plainspoken realism. You recognize the setting before Lena even begins to speak. There’s an ordinary kitchen table, refrigerator and sink stage left. On the right, a stairway that leads to a punching bag which represents the gym where Tray (Davied Morales) trains after school as a boxer.
Tray lives with his grandmother and his younger half-sister Devine (Mimia Ousilas). After indicting the audience for our detachment, Lee includes a child’s point of view to gain our sympathies. This shift alters the pitch of the rhetoric. Instead of telling a story about the victim and his family’s grief, the script works backwards in time. And, because it’s largely a memory play, Tray is recalled by his relatives as nearly ideal, a neighborhood saint.
Of course, this is a reasonable response for the bereaved, to forget or smooth over the flaws of someone they’ve loved. Especially if the upswell of emotion is for a promising young man whose loss was sudden and violent. In one scene, Tray encourages his grandmother to forgive Devine’s mother Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), a recovering addict who abandoned her child. His good nature irritates Lena until she relents and cries, “You’re a better person than I am.”
Scenes like this one provided some of brownsville song’s most satisfying moments. It starts as a dialogue between the two characters. Then Tray walks off stage leaving Lena alone in his empty bedroom. It’s a devastating shift from the happily remembered past to the grief-stricken present. What’s less dramatically satisfying is Tray’s lack of any discernible flaws. He behaves exactly right in every situation Lee creates for him and his family. The actor who plays him, Davied Morales, is engaging and charismatic but his only fault is procrastination. His college application essay is due and he’d rather be boxing.
But Lee doesn’t take up or elaborate on that metaphor either. If he’s a devout pugilist, his passion for the sport is barely explored. He’s endowed with an enormous capacity for forgiveness but, for a character in a drama, very little moral complexity. In doing so, the playwright performs a 180-degree turn that targets an entirely different audience. It’s no longer the detached she wants to wake up. Instead, Lee wants to comfort families of the bereaved. It’s understandable that she makes him blameless but where are his confusing emotions, his adolescent hormones?
When a neighborhood friend named Junior (William Hartfield) describes to Lena what happened on the day Tray died, it abstracts his death off-stage, into something expository. The explanation also felt rushed, as if the details weren’t crucial to our understanding of the narrative whole. As much as Lee creates a positive affirmation of a young Black man’s life, it’s Lena’s burden of sorrow that feels all too real.
brownsville song (b-side for tray), through July 16, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org/Online/brownsville