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Poster by R. Black for Shotgun Players

CR: “Why can’t we get some good Black movies?”
SL: “What about Rosewood?”
CR: “No, Rosewood wasn’t good – Rosewood was positive!”
– Chris Rock and Spike Lee, The Chris Rock Show, s01e04, 17 September 1999

I remember when the episode in the above quote first aired. Being here on the West Coast, I obviously didn’t see it live, but even watching the three-hours-delayed recording left an indelible impression on me, then-18 years old. I was between semesters at college and still passionate about becoming an actor. Having spent the previous decade refining my artistic tastes, I still found myself falling into the trap of praising something simply because it was regarded as a classic, or because I was supposed to appreciate what it tried to do rather than what it actually did.

In regard to the former point, I would later learn the truism which I’ve often repeated on this blog: it’s okay to hate a classic. In regard to the latter, my thoughts on that were formed from having spent my life absorbing Black art, media, and entertainment. As the Boondocks strip below illustrates (yes, I dug up that image from my blog archives), Black folks have a disproportionate tendency to reward effort over result, especially when it comes to the three aforementioned subjects. We’ll settle for the bottom-of-the-barrel antics of Tyler Perry instead of going for the brass ring. Granted, working with a lack of resources has lead Black folks to making great work (just look at hip-hop), but one of the reasons Black theatre gets a bad reputation is that it often melodramatically panders instead of reaching higher.

Although written by Asian-American playwright Kimber Lee, brownsville song (b-side for tray) is very much in the tradition of the church-based Black theatre that started in the ‘70s and still runs today. Granted, brownsville uses the word “fuck” a lot more than those other plays, but there’s no mistaking the theatrical heritage of a piece that, like its titular 18-year-old protagonist, occasionally reaches higher.

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The play opens with Lena telling us about her grandson Tray. He’s smart. He’s compassionate. He’s a boxer. He’s also dead; cut down in the prime of his life. That’s why she’s telling his story. It’s a story that involves his grandmother, his sister Devine, and Devine’s estranged mother, Merrell.

It’s the story of where one young man thought his life was going before it wound up where it did.

When the show begins, Lena (played masterfully by Cathleen Riddley) chides us in the audience for even daring to listen to the story of her late grandson. She knows that once the story is over, his name is likely to be forgotten by us. “You’re gonna move on,” she scolds us. “You’re gonna move on, ‘cause he just another…” She doesn’t finish the sentence because she doesn’t have to: another hashtag; another dead Black body; another statistic. It’s moments like these that elevate Lee’s script above the clichés of the genre in which she’s writing.

Unfortunately, the script can’t resist falling into the conventions of both the genre and a great many after-school specials and “very special episodes” we know all too well. When Merrill, a former teacher-turned-recovering drug addict, tutors Tray on how to write his college scholarship essay, you can mentally fill in the dialogue she’s about to give him about writing who he really is. In fact, so much running time is spent on Tray writing the essay while alive that it’s not that hard to guess what piece of mail will arrive in the final scene after his death.

When compelling character traits and plot points are brought up, some of them get little more than lip service. For instance, this production’s advertising is putting heavy emphasis on Tray’s prowess as a boxer (hence the drink special in the above photo), but Tray is only shown hitting a heavy bag once in an early scene. After that, boxing is never seen or mentioned again.

To Lee’s credit, most of the dialogue-driven characterization is both realistic and compelling. She wisely side-steps any scrutiny about the word “nigga” by not including the word at all. That doesn’t stop her from giving every one of these Brooklynite characters – except for young Devine – the very sort of foul mouths Brooklynites are wont to have; yes, even grandmother Lena. It’s one of the more grounded elements that show the script’s strengths. Two other such scenes involve (Merrill) trying to work her way through a new job at Starbucks – they’re appropriately painfully awkward in their verisimilitude.

The script isn’t terrible, it just shouldn’t be given credit simply for what it tries to be.

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As is often the case for a Shotgun show, the technical side thrives. Director Margo Hall brings out each actor’s natural charisma in a way that makes them each a pleasure to watch. Most of her staging (in the intricate set by Randy Wong-Westbrooke) is well-done, but scenes in Tray’s bedroom felt unnecessarily cramped. When the actors were clearly standing beyond the room’s wall, it looked awkward to see Devine at the door that was supposed to be outside the same room. Still, a visually well-composed show. Allen Willner’s lights not only succeed in suggesting things like a car’s headlights, but a sequence in which red and blue lights glow from a hidden I-beam in the stage was excellent. Joel Gimbell’s sounds are also top-notch, evoking NY street noise, banal speaker music at Starbucks, and a hip-hop version of Swan Lake accompanied by William Hodgson’s choreography and costumer Katherine Nowacki’s adorable “tree” suit. All great work.

And then there’s the cast. As title character Tray, young actor Davied Morales is still pretty green, but he has a lot of personality. His best moments come in conveying the immeasurable braggadocio that comes with being a young Black man (especially an athlete) with talent. He gives a wonderful amount of support when acting beside younger sister Devine, played by the adorable Mimia Ousilas. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, whom I last saw in Shotgun’s production of Nora, is thankfully allowed a greater range of emotions here, bringing an appropriate discomfort to all of Merrill’s attempt to reintegrate herself back into the world. William Hartfield is a wonderful discovery as both Tray’s good friend Junior, and a college student who becomes Merrill’s first Starbucks customer. I don’t know why I’ve never seen this brotha before, but I’m glad I have now.

Still, I once again have to mention the triumphant performance of Cathleen Riddley as grandmother Lena. Had this actually been a cliché “Black theatre” play, this is the very sort of role that would have been hampered by over-the-top “Oh, lawdy, lawdy!” scenery chewing. Not here; the skilled Riddley makes Lena painfully real. Unbelievably compassionate, yet strictly no-bullshit, one finds oneself unable to turn away from her when she’s onstage. If the youngest members of the cast continue to pursue acting as a passion, one hopes they’ll use Riddley as an example of how to refine their craft.

As I’ve said, brownsville song (b-side for tray) isn’t a bad play, it’s just restricted by the conventions of a genre that has, unfortunately, come to define the artistic contributions of an entire race of people. Though this production is elevated by skillful hands and a fine cast, don’t be surprised if you predict how the story ends before it even begins.

GRADE:                B-

brownsville song (b-side for tray) is scheduled to run until the 9th of July at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs rougly 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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