Every one has troubles and sorrows, and generally it is difficult to find a perspective where your own don’t look like the biggest, worst ones. The current show at Manbites Dog may be able to help you with that. Kimber Lee‘s brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes place in a world of trouble, right here in the USA, a world you may know some facts about, but may not have considered with full empathy. Another black kid killed, two lines in the paper, let’s move on. Kimber Lee says, time to turn the record over, play the other side.
Of all the things theatre is good for, its ability to provoke empathy is the most important. When Theatre holds up its mirror, and you see yourself reflected, that’s good and necessary, but more piercing are the views when the mirror is tilted away from you, to show places, people and truths not accessible to you directly. brownsville song is a kind of protest art, and like all protest art, its first demand is that you open your heart to the pain of others. In a post-show conversation on opening night, actor Wanda B. Jin spoke of catharsis–another fundamental function of theatre–and certainly there occurs here a kind of purification through suffering. The viewer, however, may not feel cleansed of anything but complacency, although if the world depicted is your world, you might feel vindicated in your rage.
Yes, it is tough, but it is first-rate. In the hands of a lesser director than Jeff Storer, it could be too painful, or worse, two-dimensional. Storer, who first saw this work at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, brings his characters into full dimensionality, full humanity: they are not dismissible. They are lovable: Grandmother Lena, raising her dead son’s two children by different mothers; teenage Tray, who wants to escape the gangs and drugs and whose every day is a walk with danger; baby sister Dee, abandoned by her mother who went off in search of a fix; that same mother, trying to make a comeback; Junior, another young man almost lost–not factoids, but people, from whom the play, the director and the actors will not allow a turning away. You feel the tragedy of Tray’s death–outlined in the opening scene by Lena (Lakeisha Coffey, magisterial, and trembling with fury)–approaching like a freight train, and like the characters, you can’t avoid it. Even more powerful, though, is the characters’ delicate rapprochement with hope, just enough hope to allow endurance.
This is a remarkable piece of theatre, and such a cogent production requires the passionate involvement of many people. Derrick Ivey designed another of his emotionally resonant, bare bones sets, which designer Andrew Parks has enhanced with some very fine lighting (note especially the “cell block” shadows on the back wall, and the way Junior is made to nearly disappear). Shelby Hahn’s minimal sound design further adds to the sense of place. The script is written is a sort of free-form poetry, and director Storer and the actors had to find its rhythms, cadences and points of emphasis. Lakeisha Coffey’s sense of timing is already well known and admired, but she takes her craft to a new level in this production. Wanda B. Jin as Merrell, the bad mother, was a tiny bit stiff on opening night, but gradually settled into this scarifying role. Lazarus Simmons as Junior plays his crucial scene with nuance and control. Ron Lee McGill as Tray carries the show (although in places he was a bit hard to hear). He’s a teenager–but he’s the man of the house. His sense of responsibility never lets him get too far from the needs of his grandmother and sister, he is determined to hold on to the family, but you feel him surging against the restraints imposed by the world outside the family. The role requires a wide range of emotion and action, and McGill fills it well.
The ensemble is completed by 14-year-old Gabrielle Scales, a student (of Carl Martin’s, who was a student of Jeff Storer’s at Duke) at the Durham School of the Arts, in her first professional production. She was astonishing in her portrayal of Dee, staying right in the moment on stage, her face a continuously changing landscape of feeling. We can hope that this wrenching production does not quench her desire to act.
brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues at Manbites Dog Theater through March 12. Tickets here. On view in the lobby gallery are the striking paintings by Cosmo Whyte which were used to illustrate Renée Alexander Craft’s lovely children’s book, I Will Love You Everywhere Always (for sale at the desk) and the production’s program.