Read the newspaper, or watch the TV news, and you can grow weary of hearing about young black men who are shot to death in familiar circumstances of street violence—whatever that phrase means. But playwright Kimber Lee, whose brownsville song (b-side for tray) is now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, is determined that her narrative will not be “the same old story.”
That’s what Lena (Alice M. Gatling), the grandmother of high school senior Tray (Wesley T. Jones), wants us to know as the lights come up on her in her Brooklyn apartment, in a rundown section of Brownsville. A chain link fence at the back of the set may symbolize trying to keep the dangers of the neighborhood out, and Lena, fiercely devoted to her grandson and his little stepsister, Devine (Deysha Nelson, who alternates the role with Catalina Grieco), keeps a watchful eye on those she loves.
Tray is not an angel; he has kept some bad company in his time (like perhaps Junior, played briefly but with intensity by Warren Jackson) and can be unreliable. But he has dreams—of college, of boxing—and a sense of humor, and he loves Lena and Devine, too. Needing help with his college essays, he reluctantly turns to his recovering addict stepmother (Rachel Lu), a former teacher. But he’s not willing, at first anyway, to let her back into their lives in any other way. That will take time and some proving of her intentions.
As the play unfolds, the action goes back and forth in time, before and after a series of gunshots that are going to change everyone’s lives forever. That can sometimes be confusing, but brownsville song (under the sensitive direction of Kate Alexander) is never less than affecting.
Gatlin delivers a powerful performance as Lena, a woman who’s lost a lot in her life but has the tenacity of spirit to keep her going. She’s matched by Jones, who makes Tray a believable, specific young man, not another statistic. His scenes with Nelson can be especially touching, forcing you to imagine how tragic it would be for them to be separated.
Lu is appropriately tense and nervous as the stepmother, Merrell, although that can become a bit one-note as the evening (90 minutes with no intermission) progresses.
Overall, though, brownsville song is heartbreaking, truthful and resonates deeply. The play continues onstage through March 26; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.