To hear history tell it, the real test of a person’s worth is the one he passes or fails after he’s gone. Vincent van Gogh sold a total of two paintings during his lifetime; now look at him. Emily Dickinson lived to see like 10 of her poems published; today, the world adores her more than 1,800 rhymes and the abject sweetness that colors them.
Death is a colossal price to pay, but sometimes, it’s the most expedient means to notoriety.
High school senior Tray, central figure in MOXIE Theatre’s current brownsville song (b-side for Tray), didn’t know that, even as his college scholarship essay hinted he’d boast as much. He was mysteriously killed in his East Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville (the special effects reflect that a car was involved), and his careworn grandmother Lena now can’t say enough about his character and his lust to the game of life.
Paralyzed by grief, she’s his biggest booster — and while playwright Kimber Lee’s understories don’t quite support the theme, director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg’s great stop-and-go stage pictures tend to compensate in this quite satisfying piece of art and commentary on urban life.
“I got words crowdin’ up through my belly,” Lena says in defense of her beloved grandbaby, “through my neck, shovin’ my mouth in the same shape”: Tray was the antithetical gang-banger, as fine and spirited and extraordinary a son, grandson, brother and young man as you’d ever want to hang with. His circumstances might have dictated a different outcome (his stepmother abandoned his family amid her battles with addiction, and we’re led to believe dog-eared Brownsville has some mean streets with which he’s well acquainted), but his indomitable attitude won the day.
His befuddled younger sister Devine (saddled with the role of a tree in her school’s production of Swan Lake) dotes on her brother, and even the sketchier people in his life (like sorta-wannabe bad-ass Junior) are subdued in the wake of his death.
Meanwhile, fiercely protective Lena has lost her deep-rooted raison d’etre. With Tray’s demise, there’s nothing left to protect.
Lee guides her play away from the tall grass, keeping the scenarios and character developments pretty simple — in fact, that’s where some of the glitches lie. Tray fancies himself something of an amateur boxer, but his cute sparring scenes with Devine never go anywhere beyond our introduction to the character. Ditto for the football he plays. That scholarship essay is nearly the only fuel in Tray’s life we see a supply of, and it’s not always enough to carry this great guy’s bigger-than-life comportment.
“Nearly” is the operative word here, as Lee’s written an outstandingly broad interlude involving stepmother Merrell, who returns to help Tray with his essay. She’s late for one of their encounters; she freely acknowledges her battles with booze and her consequent termination as a teacher; she’s under Tray’s officious thumb as he interviews her for a job at the Starbucks where he works; she’s the subject of a verbal assault by mother-bear Lena. Merrell couldn’t be more economically written for as much as her characterization contains, and Jyl Kaneshiro’s demure portrayal makes the interactions a joy to behold.
Meanwhile, the stage pictures rule the day — the melding of so many fluid enactments with Lena’s stock-still physicality gives us endless reference points for the characters. If Lee doesn’t always come through here, Sonnenberg sure does.
As Devine, Zoë Sonnenberg nicely exploits her deadpan facial expressions, though Sonnenberg tends to watch herself act. Alex Robinson is OK as subtext part Junior, but he doesn’t have much to work with in this underwritten role, which should have been more complementary with that of Tray. Meanwhile, totally give it up for big guns Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, a local treasure who expertly melds Lena’s exhaustion with her grief, and the great Cortez L. Johnson, whose Tray is bustin’ out all over with life and the opportunity it holds. Go ahead. Throw Tray your best barrel of crap. He’ll turn it into fertilizer, and in real-world terms. Johnson reacts accordingly.
Sean Fanning’s set is appropriately ramshackle, but it’s also tidy, and Lena wouldn’t have it any other way. The one-note angle to Nate Parde’s lights is OK, though it loses some of the subtext, which is critical to this play. And look what costumer Danita Lee has whipped up for Lena — the faded orange top is the perfect nuance and in better days probably would have run more like crimson.
It’s pointless to recount this show’s parallels with the urban tragedies that swallow today’s newshole, as everybody’s aware of these events ad nauseam. This play does give a certain meaning to the individuals involved and how their deaths grotesquely touch unsuspecting souls. Even in death, Tray unflinchingly stood above the fray; in life, he was determined to show the empty suits the kind of guy they could trust with their money.
“I am writing my own story,” he declares in his speech, “and this is not the end. This is the beginning.” So should we heed him, and heed him well.
This review is based on the opening-night production of Feb. 6. Brownsville song (b-side for Tray) runs through Feb. 28 at MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in the College Area. $30, discounts available. moxietheatre.com, 858-598-7620.