Rachel Spencer Hewitt
As the audience settles in to the seats at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in Philadelphia, the rustle of the programs and crinkle of matinee candy whisper politely in the open space. I take in the industrial set pieces and see shadows moving into place. With the houselights still on, I begin to wonder if these are stage hands or actors, secret or meant to be seen. A hush tries to fall slowly as other audience members begin to wonder as well. Before we can fully sink back and detach, the house lights flash off and the kitchen lamp on stage flashes on simultaneously, abrupt and aggressive. We’re here. We’re in the kitchen of a small brooklyn apartment under the life-size beams of a subway that literally stretch beyond the stage’s borders and over our heads, and the matriarch of our story – grandmother Lena (Catrina Ganey) – sits and stares us squarely in the eyes. We are not allowed to settle into comfort, but we are instantly engaged. Welcome to Brownsville Song.
Ganey begins speaking with powerful intention, carving the language of her monologue like a jack-o-lantern that leaves us to bask in its terrible glow. Through the character Lena, Ganey affirms for us the sudden thrust of this first moment is intentional as she explains “it ain’t comfortable.” We learn that we’re at the climax of a great tragedy: the headlining demise of a young black man. Before we’re able to indulge more in her grief, she chides us for showing up at the wrong beginning, telling us we “can’t start here.” Ganey gives a glimpse into what will be her show-long, powerful performance of extremes. From flashes of rage, her heart quickly softens: she begins to profile her grandson as though he were any other boy, mentioning the moments that mattered were his boyish sins like drinking out of a milk carton, and before we’re introduced to the simple young man, we’re asked to see him as just that.
Jumping into the light, a young girl Devine – played by Kaatje Welsh with bright attention and a big, vulnerable voice – calls out to Tray, and our eyes dart around for our title character. Tray briefly bounds into view, giving focus to his younger sister as though we don’t exist. After a game of catch with Devine, Tray’s gone as quickly as he appeared, giving us the chilling reminder that we’re meeting this figure as a family’s memory. Throughout the piece, Devine interacts with memories of her brother to the score of classical pieces that are interrupted by more contemporary rhythms. Devine’s life often has glimpses of the late Tray that she accepts as reality, and the aural collision of these two musical worlds merge throughout the piece as the welcome disruption Tray’s memory brings to her daily activity.
Tray – the gifted Curtiss Cook Jr., more on him later – finally unveils himself fully in scene at the corner of the stage, boxing restlessly, and confronted by a school tutor begging him to put his struggle into language for a scholarship essay. Before the audience can nod sympathetically with a desire to know what led Tray to his eventual, early end, Tray refuses to let the teacher (and us) pity him. He confidently insists that struggle is not the theme of his story. He refuses to see his life that way, and – with a strength surprising in a teenager – facilely turns youthful in his expectation that his tutor will write the essay for him.
Tray’s mother Merrell (Sung Yun Cho) re-inserts herself into the family’s life after a significant time away. Cho’s emotional resources lie ready in waiting for each plea Merrell makes to Tray, Devine, and Lena. Tray’s mother functions as the Other in the story. She possesses the most complicated narrative, almost to a distracting degree. Merrell is a disappointing figure in the family’s life who returns for restoration, allowing Tray to serve as the voice of wisdom and power in hers. As we learn more about Merrell, her information serves more background than real agency to plot, and – as complexly as she is presented and played – could be interchangeable with any Other’s fallen story. Perhaps that’s playwright Kimber Lee’s motive, as I found myself thinking any Other narrative could have been inserted to show how the Tray-Devine-Lena threesome had been let down. More than once, Merrell attempts to bond with Lena via her own grief, and Lena takes the same tone with her as she did with us at the beginning, reminding Merrell that it’s not about her, not about her grief. Merrell’s story could be anyone’s story, but perhaps that’s the point: anyone of us is responsible for neglecting the lives of Tray and others like him, and when tragedy strikes, we let our own grief steal focus. As long as we’re watching in Brownsville, Lena refuses to let that happen, herself grieving privately at the edge of Tray’s bed only after remembering his humor, kindness, and – most of all – love.
The responsibility and ultimate success of Curtiss Cook Jr. is that he plays the complex, young Tray with honesty, conviction, and – too rarely seen in tragic characters – irrepressible joy. Curtiss Cook Jr. has the rare, innate ability to inhabit a character so fully you believe Tray could be played by no one else. Cook naturally radiates the youth, charm, and strength necessary to make Tray a believable, multi-dimensional teenager who is both relatable and distinct. Tray’s brief scene in the boxing gym aptly fits Cook’s performance, grounded, light on its feet, and able to pack a solid punch. Like Tray, Cook is uninterested in the pity or even sympathy that could easily be milked from the role by a lesser performer. In keeping with his character’s spirit, Cook insists on the positive, becoming – like Tray – the pillar on whom everyone else in the world can lean. He generously plays with the characters in his life, offering support, loyalty, laughter, and insight with the necessary nuance of naiveté. In a pivotal scene, Cook’s tears slip out without effort and almost without his permission. We see no sign of an actor pouring out the waterworks but instead see the young man Tray moved in spite of himself, transparent to a fault, who then quickly resolves to pull it back and shake it off just late enough that those of us watching can’t help but be shaken by it. When Cook appears as the apparition Tray – as largely responsible for transporting us as any set or design or story element – our spirits soar, and when Tray is gone, the hole Cook leaves is palpable. The loss Cook leaves us with forces us to grieve with the characters as they search for meaning in the loss of Tray. By the end, the audience has feared for Tray, learned from Tray, and – in vocal solidarity at the final moments of the performance I attended – cheered for Tray. Cook’s reaction to this final moment as he projected Tray’s words over our heads like a blessing reinforced his genius – he’s been connecting with us, too, the whole time.
The story flashes back and forth between up-beat memory and the weighty present, kept sharp and clear by Eric Ting’s direction and the intelligent lighting done with precision by Russell H. Champa. Anthony Martinez rounds out the world with smartly played, contrasting ensemble characters and delivers the details of Tray’s end with a booming baritone voice like a greek chorus singing the praise of a fallen hero.
The power of this cast to pull meaning from contemporary stock characters and rattle us with their relationships makes Brownsville a must-see. The intention is not to reveal over-arching twists in the plot as though unfolding a mystery, as Lee tells us the end from the get-go. The intention is to immerse us in the conventional moments that build on the love and strength of a family. It is from the peak of this mountain of hope that makes the fall seem so far. The tragedy of the death of this young man isn’t the thrill of the week we may want to make it, it’s the loss of a son, grandson, and brother who had joy, possibility, and expectation. We cannot help but hear echoes of the current events in Baltimore and around the country where each death of a black man at the hands of police brutality is met with viral shares of rap sheets, as though the victim’s life could be discredited. Yet Kimber Lee proves with this inspiration that we refuse to reduce a victim to a headline when we start to listen to the voices of the families themselves, allowing them to lead the narrative, instead of clicking through advertised plot points. Brownsville Song reminds us that the only way this story and others like it will matter to us is if we fall in love with Tray and others like him by visiting the intimate, human moments that precede the headlining tragedies, allowing Tray and others like him to articulate their own identity, their own future, and discovering that – like Merrell – we may be surprised by their strength when we don’t make their struggle about us.
Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray) is playing at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theater now through May 31 only. For tickets and more information from the box office you can visit philadelphiatheatrecompany.org or call 215-985-0420.
Suzanne Roberts Theater
480 Broad St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102