Monday, June 26, 2017

"brownsville song (b-side for tray)"

brownsville song (b-side for tray)
Kimber Lee

Cathleen Riddley & Davied Morales
With sleepy eyes, we peruse the morning paper or slide through the IPhone news updates; and a too-familiar headline catches our eye.  Another family mourns the shooting death of a teen or 20-something, a kid struck down by a random bullet or one meant for someone else.  We think or even mutter out loud, “How tragic;” and at the same time we note with some relief that the location is in the other part of the city or even better, in that city – both areas of the Bay Area we always try to avoid.  We may even secretly register -- without ever saying so aloud – that the victim’s color and/or nationality is not ours.  And then we move on to the next story, shaking our heads in pity as we read about the latest Trump Tweet.

Playwright Kimber Lee (tokyo fish story, the yellow house) is forcing us not to move on too quickly without first hearing the entire story behind a headline that has a tendency to blend in with all the similar ones before and after it.  Like the other, ‘b’ side of the old 45 rpm records, she flips over the oft-played side of the murderous headline and asks us to watch and listen to who one of these young victims of urban shootings really is and to meet the family who must live forever with his loss and their grief.  Shotgun Players stages a powerful, moving, and immensely important production of Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) and challenges us all to leave the theatre, ready to re-commit to take a stand and to resist with resolve the NRA’s control of our legislators and leaders.

When tragedy strikes unexpectedly, all sense of time and of reality can suddenly become skewed.  Kimber Lee’s script -- under the astute, sensitive, yet no-holes-barred direction of Margo Hall – blurs the boundaries present and past, reality and dream, alive and dead to underline the disorientation and disarray a bullet can have on the lives of others.  The effect is that even as audience, we are not always sure what realm of reality or dimension of time we are witnessing.  However, we are always totally cognizant that the story unfolding in all its complicated levels is so much more than that initial headline, so much more impactful than just one life lost.

Davied Morales
Tray is in many ways just a typical teenager: one minute remote and moody, smart aleck and sassy, or altogether belligerent and obnoxious while the next minute charming and cute, joking and jovial, or even totally lovable and loving.  As Tray, Davied Morales captures in his frequent “yo’s” and “shit’s,” his slouching and sliding style of walk, and his boyish looks smacking of disinterest and disregard the teenage boy of eighteen that any parent would readily recognize.  His star-athlete, accomplished-in-school Tray pretends he is working on a scholarship application essay when he, his Grandmother, and all of us know he clearly is not -- that sheepish grin when caught being a dead give-away.  He is a boy intense in feelings that he may be reluctant to express but that show in his eyes, his tensed-up muscles, and his sudden, spontaneous bear hug that startles his grandma as much as himself.  Masterfully, Mr. Morales ensures we get to know, to like, and even to love this boy named Tray – guaranteeing that his inevitable, tragic ending will affect us in ways a headline never can.

Mimia Ousilas
Tray is particularly joyful and magical when with his young sister, Devine, sweetly and whimsically played by Mimia Ousilas.  A girl somewhere in the transition of soon becoming a teen, she blossoms in every regard when fancifully dancing, playing games of tease, or just walking hand-in-hand with her big brother.  Ms. Ousilas’ Devine does not talk a lot, but she speaks volumes in the messages she conveys about her love of a brother and the loss she is reluctant to accept as reality.

Davied Morales & Cathleen Riddey
The relationship of Tray with his Grandmother, Lena, is one of being tested and testy, of being watched and watched over, and of acting agitated while being actually full of adulation – with each of these dichotomies being descriptors of the relationship from Lena’s perspective also.  Cathleen Riddley gives a rich and riveting performance as the Grandmother who is not shy in pointing her wagging fingers, shouting 4-letter-word warnings, or shoving her diminutive body up against that of her sprawling grandson’s as she drills into him her point of view how he must act and what he must do.  The intensity she brings into every moment on stage is immense. The depth of felt emotions behind her hardened furrows of past hurts and sorrows is seen in every muscle’s movement and in a face that both darkens and brightens in full array.  But it is in that deep, gravelly voice where the concerns, the hopes, and the love of Lena the grandmother can be heard most loud and clear.

Eric Mei-Ling Stuart
Tray’s ability to confront, forgive, and forge a path for possible redemption (even past his too-soon demise) is shown through a surprise and unwelcome visit by his step-mother (and Devine’s birth mother), Merrill.  Adoring wife to their now-deceased dad (dead also through bullet wounds), Merrill returns after years of fighting grief-spawned addictions that led to her abandonment of her kids and to Lena’s doing all she can to be sure Merrill is permanently absent from their lives.  Erin Mei-Ling Stuart’s Merrill is clearly living on the edge, doing all she can to make it through another day without falling back into her life dependence on drugs.  She moves and speaks with a tentativeness and tension that mirror the inner battles she fights each day just to stay sober and on the straight-and-narrow.  But she also shows hopeful signs, especially when with Tray, that this is a fight she can now win.  Ms. Stuart is yet another member of this stellar cast who gives a gripping performance.

Rounding out the cast in a smaller role but one with large and memorable impact is William Hartfield as Tray’s friend, Junior -- a boyhood pal who appears to have fallen into the frays of street gangs and their dealings with drugs.  But when his Junior has a sidewalk, come-to-the-altar encounter with a grieving Lena, his gang member persona melts away for few seconds in a powerful scene under the heat of Lena’s words and love in a performance by Mr. Hartfield that leaves its mark.

What Lena learns from Junior is a lesson that is a shocking truth hard to believe but important to know behind many of those early morning headlines we all read in haste.  On the streets, young men build a feared reputation and survive by building points, points given them by other gang members for shots fired, for bodies produced. 

That street bounties are gained by taking the lives of boys and young men like Tray is a shocking, sorrowful, but important message of this impactful play.  Shotgun Players is to be commended in many regards both for bringing Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) to the Bay Area as well as for assembling such a remarkable cast and creative team to insure audience members will leave different from when they entered Ashby Stage.  Hopefully we exit never to forget that recurring headlines of shootings can only be halted if all of us determine that guns must be eliminated from our streets and our youth.

Rating: 5 E

brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues through July 16, 2017 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, , 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Cheshire Issacs.

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