BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY) (PTC/Long Wharf): Telling an urban tragedy

Catrina Ganey and Curtiss Cook Jr. in Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of 'brownsville Song.' (Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras)
Catrina Ganey and Curtiss Cook Jr. in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of ‘brownsville Song.’ (Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras)

BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY) is an admirable attempt to address the contemporary and timely tragedy of urban violence, but it doesn’t quite manage to ring true.

Tray (Curtiss Cook Jr.) is an 18-year-old athlete and college hopeful whose his life is cut short by the kind of random violent tragedy that happens too often in his neighborhood. Moving back and forth in time we learn about his life and dreams before his death as well as the way his grandmother Lena (Catrina Ganey), sister Devine (Kaatje Welsh) and estranged mother Merrell (Sun Yun Cho) deal with the loss of yet another loved one. Much of the plot – such as it exists – revolves around Tray’s reconciliation with the mother that abandoned them and his attempt to write a scholarship essay that would perfectly describe who he is.

The biggest problem with BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY) is its desperate need to be a tragedy. Tray as a character seems flat and one-dimensional because playwright Kimber Lee is pre-occupied with presenting him only as an innocent victim: the hardworking student, good big brother, loving grandson, superb athlete. Lee’s writing veers towards a conclusion that somehow death is a bigger tragedy when the victim is an honor student rather than a drug addict or a gang member, which is a morally problematic argument to make. It also creates an uninteresting main character in what is supposed to be a complex drama. The issue is not improved by the lack of purpose this play suffers from as it seems to be undecided on what story it’s telling and why.

The moments of true, heartfelt tragedy emerge with Catrina Ganey’s portrayal of the grandmother who already lost her son and had to raise her grandchildren only to lose her grandson like she lost her son. Hers is the only truly complex and interesting character in the play and Ganey’s performance finds the right shades of anger, love and humor to make an impression. Unfortunately Sung Yun Cho as Tray’s mother Merrell seems uninterested to be on stage and as a consequence delivers a thoroughly monotonous performance. Similarly, Curtiss Cook Jr’s performance as Tray shows little depth, although that largely rests on the playwright who sees unwilling to give Tray anything other than admirable or cute qualities.

Despite its current and important topic, BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY) has a script with enough problems to require powerhouse acting performances and daring directorial decisions for its tragedy to truly resonate. Neither of those are present in this production, so the end result is nothing short of a disappointment. [Philadelphia Theatre Company] May 1-31, 2015;

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