Jabri Little as Tray and Lisa Langford as Lena. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘brownsville song’ a poignant play about love and resilience

By Bob Abelman

“There’s some / thing / Got a / a uh weight to it / Dig into my ribcage every breath I take every hour of the day / Drippin scratchin on my skin with its red saliva / Writin his name over and over / Those letters just burnin through to my bones / burning me with why / and he knew better / and didn’t I say to him.”

So begins playwright Kimber Lee’s lyrical, heartfelt and heart-wrenching tale about deep loss and senseless death, and Dobama Theatre’s remarkable telling of it.

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” takes place in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where a young black life with infinite potential on the verge of endless possibilities is tragically cut short in a street shooting. That is where this story, which seamlessly time-shifts between the past and the present, both begins and ends.

In between, we meet the teenager Tray (Jabri Little), the adoring 9-year-old sister (Logan Dior Williams) who sees his apparition everywhere, his remorseful step-mother who abandoned them (Cindy Chang), the loving grandmother who raises them (Lisa Louise Langford), and a fatalistic best friend (Kalim Hill) who is all the things that Tray is not.

Despite a story that balances precariously on the tenterhook of tragic loss, director Jimmie Woody keeps his talented performers and their textured performances from sinking into and getting lost in that emotion. The heartbreak is obvious, omnipresent and all-encompassing, but by bearing the pain and moving forward, the survivors’ resilience and the harsh reality of the street are made even more poignant.

While Langford’s portrayal of the grandmother Lena stands out for its remarkable honesty and painful vulnerability, Little – a senior at the Cleveland School of the Arts – gives us a young man to cheer for and a professional debut to remember.

When paired with others, who deliver fully-fleshed characters, his charisma and virtuosity makes the tiny Williams’ Devine all the sweeter, Chang’s Merrell all the more remorseful (particularly at the end of the play, when Chang’s mastery of this challenging character solidifies), and Hill’s Junior all the more tragic.

All this is set against a brick wall scarred with ghetto graffiti that comes to life during scene transitions thanks to T. Paul Lowry’s eye-candy animated projections and the pulsating backbeat of hip-hop and jazz courtesy of sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor.

The few set pieces ushered in and out of the performance space – the apartment where Tray lived, the gym where he trained for the Golden Gloves, and the Starbucks where he worked to save up money for college – are realistically rendered by Laura Carlson Tarantowski and dramatically lit by Marcus Dana, and define the finite boundaries of Tray’s existence.

This play premiered in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., the same year as the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police. Cleveland’s Playwrights Local recently told that tale in the original play “Objectively/Reasonable” and did so through a dramatization of documented reactions by anonymous neighbors, friends and community leaders. This made the senseless shooting particularly personal, political and parochial.

Although “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is similarly inspired by the shooting death of a young man named Tray Franklin in Brownsville, turning fact into fiction side-steps the political science of senseless acts of violence and allows for poetry to take the place of testimony and news reports. As such, this play transcends eulogy, broadens the conversation, and places it squarely in the lap of the audience, where it belongs.

As Lena says in that opening monologue: “Same Old Story so you gon feel bad and move on / Cuz he just another / Ain’t he / To you. / He was not.” cv

On stage

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Sept. 24

TICKETS & INFO: $30–$32, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on September 2, 2017.

Lead image: Jabri Little as Tray and Lisa Langford as Lena. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography