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Lily Janiak | June 23, 2017
San Francisco Chronicle
For much of “Brownsville Song (B-side for Tray),” you might catch yourself wondering to what extent Tray (Davied Morales), the young shooting victim at its center, is a good kid.
Sure, between his training sessions in the boxing gym, he toils away at a scholarship essay, works diligently at a part-time job and wields charm so powerful it can disarm his congenitally belligerent grandmother Lena (Cathleen Riddley) or coax his little sister Devine (Mimia Ousilas) out of her shell. But Kimber Lee’s play also hints that Tray has a shady side hustle, one that might partly explain why this young black man was killed. What’s the deal with all the mysterious phone calls and the slinking in to their Brooklyn apartment late at night? Is he hanging out with no-goodniks again, like Junior (William Hartfield)?
Shotgun Players’ ghost story of a play, which opened Thursday, June 22, raises those questions only to skewer them, to show how tempting it is to blame the victim and absolve the rest of us. If Tray didn’t want to die, that flimsy thinking goes, he should have behaved more perfectly.
Under the direction of Margo Hall, “Brownsville Song” reveals that thinking for what it is: our national shame.
Tray is already perfect — and not just because his generous, forgiving spirit inspires the same in the harsher Lena, not just because his no-quit attitude sparks in Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), a troubled figure from the family’s past, a new urge to better herself. He’s perfect even when he talks back to Lena, even when he’s egregiously late picking up Devine. He’s perfect, worthy simply by being. So, the play proclaims, is a seemingly menacing character like Junior.
That doesn’t mean the play is perfect. Its mechanisms to get Tray and Merrell in the same room again after many years, and then to allow them to interrogate each other, are painfully contrived and shoddily executed — as if a playwright’s exercise to help better understand the characters had somehow made it into the show’s finished product. One of the scenes, set in a Starbucks where Tray works, spends so much time on a bit part’s latte order that you think the multibillion-dollar company must have paid for an ad spot.
Nor does the show fully escape sentimentality. Stirred by Tray, other characters overcome their failings a little too easily. The conclusion of “Brownsville Song” gets close to hagiography.
Still, scenes between Tray and Lena fare well. They love through fighting — not the cutesy fighting of a Lifetime movie, but the debating and occasional roughhousing of a lifelong, perfectly matched spar. Even though Tray’s the pugilist, Riddley often makes her character the more physically fearsome, the alpha of the block. She’s at her best when another character speaks without her warrant. She might swallow her rage, but that doesn’t mean it goes away. It makes her only stronger.
She needs that strength. Hall makes the world of “Brownsville Song” a frightening one. A dark palette, a haze effect and a xylophone that sounds like dripping water make the characters as isolated from the supposed protections of the law and societal institutions as they would be at the bottom of a cave. Car headlights constantly roll by, and each time they do, you fear they’ll land on a character and somehow expose him or her, maybe run that person over.
Where the headlights are really shining, of course, is on you, on all of us and on our failure to tell a different story about Tray and his fellow victims.
Sad, hopeful elegy in Shotgun’s brownsville song
Chad Jones | June 23, 2017
The desperate craziness of our times has desensitized us to the reality behind the headlines that bombard us from every screen and feed and page. The level of injustice, death and willful cruelty reported on a daily basis, if you try to take a step back and really look at it, is staggering. Our desensitization is a survival tactic to be sure – could we spend every waking hour enraged or in tears? Absolutely! – but there’s a cost when we lose sight of the individuals whose lives are told in fragments on the news. We are removed from their lives and our connection to them, and news is just news (most of it bad to awful to grotesque) and not filled with actual human beings.
Playwright Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) offers a poignant reminder that our grim news feeds are built from lives, not just of victims and perpetrators and garbage politicians. There are the lives of the people whose names are in the news as well as the lives connected to those lives and the ripples that overlap with ripples that overlap with ripples.
First developed in San Francisco by the Playwrights Foundation, brownsville went on to productions at the Humana Festival and Lincoln Center. Now the play is back in the Bay Area courtesy of Shotgun Players with a production beautifully and sensitively directed by Margo Hall, whose work behind the scenes is proving to be as powerful as her onstage work as an actor, which is saying quite a lot.
Time is fluid in brownsville, named for the rough Brooklyn neighborhood in which it takes place. We begin after the tragedy. A promising young man, Tray, has been gunned down on the street. He was not part of a gang or a crew. He wasn’t involved in illegal activities. He had overcome numerous obstacles in his 18 years – an absent mother, a father murdered on the streets, a stepmother who abandoned him and his little sister, scuffles with the law when he was younger. But with the ferocious support of his grandmother, he had pulled his life together. He was doing well in school, he was disciplined about his boxing, and he was full of love (and sass) for his family.
He was also in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The first voice of the play comes from Lena, Tray’s paternal grandmother. Played by Cathleen Riddley, she is impossible not to love and admire (and fear just a little bit). She tells us not to start the story with her. She’s not the beginning, she’s the end, and Tray was not just another story. He’s not just another victim you may or may not hear about on the news or a faceless statistic about gun violence in this country. He was simply himself, and you can feel through Riddley’s quiet, undeniably powerful performance, just how profound his loss is.
Through a series of flashbacks, we meet Tray who was, as his grandmother puts it, “semi-reliable about everything but his little sister and boxing.” Played the charismatic Davied Morales, Tray is a light. He’s not a saint but a believable teenager – intelligent, rebellious, bursting with energy – who does well in school, holds down a job at Starbucks, helps out with Devine, his little sister, and trains and competes in an amateur boxing circuit. Like Riddley, Morales is a powerful presence as Tray. He and Riddley are the motor and the fuel of this 90-minute play.
Together, they are the cycle of hope and grief and hope that makes this experience so potent. Tray was fighting to not just be another hard-luck story of a kid from violent street, and we have every reason to believe he would continue shining brighter and brighter.
Playwright Lee can tend toward the cliché in her writing, but director Hall and her strong cast tend to circumvent any mawkishness and head for something more honest. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is a believably complex person from Tray’s past who, after her own difficulties, is attempting to make better choices, and 11-year-old Mimia Ousilas is Tray’s little sister. There’s a lot she could be sad about, and she is, but she also supplies some of the play’s lightest moments when she fails to blend into the background as a weeping willow in her dance class production of Swan Lake. William Hartfield as Junior, a neighborhood friend of Tray’s, at first seems to be trouble, but a later scene between him and Lena reveals layers and history and emotion that renders the character in a different light.
And therein lies the power of brownsville. Here, in flesh and blood, is a reminder to look and think and feel beyond headlines and statistics, as hard as that may be. This poetic, sometimes elegiac play – with straightforward, effective design by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (set), Allen Willner (lights), Joel Gimbell II (sound) – cuts right to the heart of why the life of someone you don’t know matters and how our unjust, violent, crazily complicated culture can encourage us to think we’re disconnected from one another when exactly the opposite is true.
“Any man’s death diminishes me.” John Dunne from the poem No Man is an Island
Sadly, gun violence plagues American society, and it particularly blights our poorer, and largely minority communities. Statistics say that murder is the leading cause of death among black men 15-34, a staggering thought in a society of great resources to combat the causes of violence. But each death is more than a statistic. Behind each loss is a story. Perhaps one of a youth who had adopted the culture of violence. Perhaps one of a bright hope dimmed. This is a story and a production that demand and deserve our attention.
Playwright Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) grips from Grandma Lena’s opening soliloquy on “what he wasn’t.” Cathleen Riddley gives a passionate, spot-on performance as the long-time denizen of the high-crime Brownsville projects in Brooklyn. Riddley delivers her paean with bitterness and the resignation of one who has suffered many losses but soldiers on with commitment and hope that one day things will change.
Tray is an African-American high school senior who aspires. Although he has slipped up from time to time, his brag sheet is good enough to put him in competition for college scholarships. Besides his school work, his other area of accomplishment is Golden Gloves boxing. Optimistic, he refuses to let circumstances become excuses or weigh on him, and once dedicated to a proposition, he fights the full 15 rounds. Tray is built for success, as is his portrayer, Davied Morales. The young actor gives a stirring performance, exuding charisma and capturing the character’s love for what is important to him.
Like too many ghetto kids we hear of in real life who lack parents to care for them, Tray is raised by his sacrificing and demanding grandmother, Lena. And like most children, he has rebellious moments, but he shares a deep, loving relationship with her and with his younger sister, Devine.
Lee’s play is compelling and wrenching – full of vignettes that ring true and depict well-developed characters, each with a realistic balance of virtues and flaws. One improbable occurrence, however, is how Merrell, the children’s recovering addict mother, reestablishes contact. That said, the playwright creates a clever way for Tray to interview her about what she had been doing in the intervening years since she abandoned the children.
The narrative is non-linear. It may not always be clear what is flashback and what is dream forward, but fortunately time doesn’t really matter to the understanding. Feelings and relationships do. One scene that is particularly rich in meaning occurs on two levels with Tray shadow boxing on a catwalk and Devine practicing ballet in the apartment. It reflects Tray’s constant presence with Devine but also their involvement in different pursuits, his that can be tied to the past and to decline, and hers which may provide hope for betterment.
In addition to the stellar leads, three supporting cast members round out a superb ensemble. As the wayward Merrell, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart’s furtiveness and pained expressions reveal a person wanting redemption but lacking the confidence to assert herself. Eleven year old Mimia Ousilas charms as Devine. Her dreaminess, bashfulness, and love for family are palpable. William Hartfield is Junior, Tray’s dead-end friend who reveals elder respect for Lena but a cold indifference to senseless killing within his peer group.
Director Margo Hall not only orchestrates a fine acting corps but an outstanding artistic team. Design stars are Joel Gimbell’s sound, which captures the rhythms of street noise and storm, and Allen Willner’s dramatic lighting, including the sweeping beam of a police light and lights from cars on the street. Each unsettling element throughout presents a potential threat.
It bears mention that the playwright is a Korean-American female – not the most likely to author this story, yet its insights are powerful and draw from the author’s experience. It is not clear whether the ethnicity of Merrell is specified in the stage notes, though it is known from the script that she is not black. The perplexing title is in the form of the two surfaces of an old 45 or 78-rpm record, in which the designated “a” side is expected to be the more popular with buyers, but the “b” side may have special significance to the author.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ben Sloan | June, 27, 2017
When we watch “brownsville song (b-Side for tray)” at Shotgun Players, we are tasked with a question: Why does the young African-American Tray (Davied Morales) fall like so many others, even though he clearly chooses a better path? The question lingers from the start, when Tray’s grandmother Lena (Cathleen Riddley) berates us, as a loving mother who has just lost one of her two kids.
Sitting in a chair, with the lights dimmed to create a confessional atmosphere, Riddley addresses the crowd with ferocious intimacy. She makes us feel like she is talking to each one of us—handing down a stirring lecture about street truths that we usually ignore and avoid.
After all, who listens to the B-side, when the hits are on the A-side? “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” tells the story behind those inner-city murders we hear about on the news. Playwright Kimber Lee explores the tragedies in that raw, crowded corner of Brooklyn. She tells about love and family, and notably, the stories that go untold. Director Margo Hall gives life to these characters and we believe in their fast-paced lingo and their lives.
“brownsville” bursts with powerful performances by Davied Morales, playing young hard-working Tray—and Cathleen Riddley, as his grandmother and guardian, Lena. Their portrayal of authentic laughter, love, frustration, and trauma made me feel like I was watching a tragedy unfold before my eyes, in real time.
Davied Morales lights up the stage with each youthful cackle, forceful shout, and playful jibe. We crave more of his boisterous, charismatic, imperfect, yet totally admirable Tray. Tray shines with potential. He is a Golden Glove boxer, saving up money from his job at Starbucks to buy a car.
Tray and his half-sister Devine (Mimia Ousila) have no mother and no father. Their father was murdered when they were younger, and Devine’s mother Merrel (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart.) left them because of drug addiction.
Morales portrays Tray as a loving brother, brilliantly. Tray undertakes a new path to masculine pride for a teen-ager in our time. No longer does a young kid in New York need to establish himself by joining a gang. By being a role model for his kid sister, Tray finds a more meaningful path to manhood.
Unlike his friend Junior (William Hartfield), Tray tries to avoid the pitfalls of gang life. When His Grandmother cries, “Not him,” she hopes that Tray will overcome the temptations of the men of his generation. Lena thoroughly believes that Tray will make it out of Brownsville alive and well.
But Tray falls victim, brutally murdered.
Living in Brownsville, mindless murder is familiar to Lena’s weathered soul. When Tray innocently gets in the middle of a gang rivalry, we feel her heart shattering disappointment. Our hope for Tray’s future is tarnished.
But when the show ends, and the players emerge for their standing ovation, the story is not over. Kids like Tray get murdered all the time: young men and women whom we will never know. We know their names, where they went to school, and see the scattering of Facebook pictures that their parents share. But beyond that, the story of their laughter and their dreams—their love and happiness—remains untold.
At Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, “brownsville” bursts our bubble with a taste of a reality that is kept far away. As a Cal student, I have it easy: reading, writing, and philosophizing about things that won’t help other kids like Tray live. When I watch “brownsville song,” I ask myself, “How can I help Tray live?”
For most of the 1960s I spent my summers at a YMCA sailing camp in Rhode Island. It was a closed environment that was almost entirely male, extremely white, and relatively free from the pressures of daily life in the outside world. Back in those days cable television, the Internet, and social media had not even been invented. Boys could be boys (focusing mainly on sports) and the environment nurtured a sense of brotherhood and fair play that was almost idyllic. The only time we were allowed to watch television was on July 21, 1969 at 2:56 UTC, when those willing to get up in the middle of the night convened in the mess hall to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the surface of the moon.
How I ended up in Rhode Island is an interesting story. For several years my father (a high school biology teacher) had been the recipient of grants from the National Science Foundation to attend summer institutes (I earned money by typing up his application forms). One year, he received a grant for a summer institute at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. The following summer was spent at Brown University in Providence, where my parents met Anne Schwerner (another biology teacher from New York City) and her husband, Nathan.
On June 21, 1964, headlines were filled with the news that three field/social workers from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. At the time of their deaths James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and the Schwerners' son, Michael (Mickey), had been investigating the burning of a nearby Methodist church that had been a CORE Freedom School. However indirect, that was my first exposure to America's racist attitudes toward African Americans.
Since then, thousands of black men, women, and children have been the victims of racist attacks by so-called "real Americans." The recent acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez (the officer who murdered Philando Castile on July 6, 2016) by a jury of his peers in Minnesota was a bitter disappointment to many Americans. In his Op-Ed column in The New York Times entitled Sacrificing Black Lives for the American Lie, Ibram X. Kendi wrote:
"This blaming of the black victim stands in the way of change that might prevent more victims of violent policing in the future. Could it be that some Americans would rather black people die than their perceptions of America? Is black death more palatable than accepting the racist reality of slaveholding America, of segregating America, of mass-incarcerating America? Is black death the cost of maintaining the myth of a just and meritorious America? People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America."
"To diagnose police officers’ lethal fears as racist, juries and prosecutors would also have to diagnose their own fears of black bodies as racist. That is a tall task. It may even be easier to get a racist cop convicted of murdering a black person than it is to get a racist American to acknowledge his or her own racism. Racist Americans keep justice as far away from black death as possible to keep the racist label as far away from themselves as possible. And in exonerating the police officer and America of racism, people end up exonerating themselves."
While many have criticized the jury's verdict, few have spoken about the situation with as much eloquence, empathy, and common sense as Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
Melissa Hillman (whose brilliant Bitter Gertrude theatre blog is a constant source of dramatic wisdom) offered the following insights in a post entitled Do Black Lives Matter At Your Theatre and In Your Films?
“It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as 'natural.' Spinning out from the narrative trope ‘Black = DANGER’ are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people. We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It's not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.”
“Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they're there, whether you examine them or not. The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.”
Bay area audiences were recently exposed to two stunning dramas about the black experience in America.
One cast a black man as the oppressor; the other cast the black man as the oppressed.
One had its world premiere 92 years ago, the other is receiving its world premiere from a small theatre company in Berkeley.
One featured a black matriarch easily taken in by a con man posing as a preacher; the other featured a black matriarch who had experienced more than her fair share of tragedy and was susceptible to any bullshit dancing on the silver tongues of men who would play her for a fool.
In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been highlighting the work of the groundbreaking African-American filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. This year's selection was 1925's Body and Soul in which the 27-year-old Paul Robeson made his screen debut as a pair of twins. As the goodly Sylvester, he portrayed a poor, but conscientious man whose inventions showed great promise. As the two-faced Rev. Isaiah T. Jenkins, he portrayed an escaped convict posing as a corrupt preacher intent on stealing the life savings of one of the congregation's most devout parishioners, a hard-working laundress named Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) who had kept her family afloat by ironing clothes and picking cotton.
Although Martha Jane's daughter, Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell), is in love with the handsome Sylvester, her gullible mother is an easy target for a charismatic swindler posing as a man of the cloth. While Body and Soul showcased Robeson’s dramatic versatility, it was the only film he made with an African American director. In supporting roles, Lawrence Chenault appeared as the reverend's former jailmate (Yello-Curley Hinds) while two elders of the church were portrayed by Walter Cornick as Brother Amos and Chester A. Alexander as Deacon Simpkins. Two pious ladies of the church (Lillian Johnson as Sis Caline and Madame Robinson as Sis Lucy) were seen as close friends of Martha Jane.
After Jenkins convinces Isabelle to take the blame for his theft of her mother's money, she flees from Tatesville to Atlanta. A desperate Martha Jane finds Isabelle who, before she dies, tells her mother that Jenkins had raped her after stealing Martha Jane's money.
As I watched Body and Soul certain overly histrionic patches seemed to strain credibility (partly due to Mercedes Gilbert's acting). However, after the audience learns that what they have witnessed was really a bad dream, the film ends with Martha Jane bestowing her savings upon Sylvester and Isabelle as a wedding gift. With live musical accompaniment by DJ Spooky and Guenter Buchwald, a restored print from Kino Lorber was screened at the Castro Theatre. As Susan Doll explained in her program note:
“Robeson’s twin roles represent two archetypes familiar to African Americans: Stagger Lee the hustler/trickster versus Booker T. Washington’s self-made man. In Micheaux’s view, they represent the two paths available to African American men. His mission was to point out the folly of the wrong path.”
“Complicating any assessment of individual films is the censorship Micheaux experienced at the hands of state and local censor boards. New York censors did not accept the director’s original nine-reel version of Body and Soul, rejecting it outright on November 5, 1925, for being sacrilegious and for inciting audiences to commit crimes. Micheaux resubmitted the film a few days later, making it clear through title cards and an insert of a news article that Isaiah T. Jenkins is an escaped convict masquerading as a reverend. The censors rejected Body and Soul again, prompting Micheaux to reduce the film to five reels, cutting it nearly in half. The worst behavior of the reverend was passed on to another character and most of the scenes involving drinking and gambling were eliminated. In February 1927, he submitted a seven-reel version to the Chicago censors, who rejected it for its scandalous depiction of a Protestant minister. He recut it for those censors as well.”
Body and Soul was pretty much unknown to white audiences for many years. In 2000, the New York Film Festival screened Michaux's film with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performing a new score composed by Wycliffe Gordon. At the Castro screening,I found the samplings by DJ Spooky to be a thrilling addition to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Thankfully, a restored print of Body and Soul is available on YouTube (see below).
One of the rewards of being a theatre critic is to witness the birth of an exciting new drama that is rich in humanity, bursting with life, and has a voice all its own. Because of the economics of live theatre, such plays frequently receive their world premieres from small regional theatre companies.
Thanks to the National New Play Network's ability to encourage the sharing of resources and choreograph rolling world premieres among several theatre companies, a playwright's new work can be seen by multiple audiences in diverse cities within a relatively short period of time. On other occasions, a world premiere may be a stand-alone effort. Some of the more impressive world premieres witnessed by Bay area audiences in recent years include:
Marcus Gardley's amazing ...And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi (2010) that premiered at the Cutting Ball Theatre.
Bennett Fisher's timely Hermes, which premiered at the San Francisco Olympians Festival in 2010.
Richard the First, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (a trilogy by Gary Graves that premiered at CentralWorks in 2012).
Peter Sinn Nachtreib's wonderfully bizarre piece of immersion theatre entitled A House Tour of The Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry (2016) that premiered at Z-Space.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's poignant Everything That's Beautiful, which recently received its world premiere from the New Conservatory Theatre Center.
Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy's compelling HeLa (2017) that recently premiered at TheatreFirst.
I first encountered Kimber Lee's work in 2016 when, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley staged tokyo fish story (which had been part of the company's 2014 New Works Festival). Thanks to the persistent efforts of Amy Mueller (Artistic Director of Playwrights Foundation), Patrick Dooley (Artistic Director of Shotgun Players), and the multitalented Margo Hall, this month's world premiere of Lee's new play offers further cause for jubilation. As Hall explains:
"I heard a reading of brownsville song (b-side for tray) in the 2013 Bay Area Playwrights Festival and fell in love with the play. The joy and pain expressed in the 90-minute run-time was a beautiful roller coaster ride that somehow left me hopeful. Hopeful that the audience that witnessed this story with me was reminded that the death of someone to gun violence affects everyone and everything around them. Hopeful that, after seeing this play, the people of these audiences will be motivated to do something to eliminate gun violence in their respective communities. Each individual who falls victim to gun violence has a name, a family, and a community. Kimber Lee gives us an opportunity to pay homage to all those families and communities who have been victims to gun violence. Lee reminds us that we are all a part of these concentric circles of death and love."
Lee's protagonist is a hyperactive teenager (David Morales) and aspiring boxer from a broken family that has been held together by the tough love of his fearsome grandmother (Cathleen Riddley). After Lena's son was killed with four bullets to the chest and his second wife's alcoholism made Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) unfit to take care of Tray and his kid sister, Devine (Mimia Ousilas), the children came to live with Lena.
While Lena worked two jobs (often to the point of exhaustion) and made sure there was food on the table, Tray and Devine learned how to entertain each other while growing sensitive to their sibling's moods and needs. Tray's ability to charm Devine out of her moments of extreme shyness stays with her even after her brother takes "four to the chest" from a member of a local gang simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Working on a unit set designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (with lighting by Allen Willner, costumes by Katherine Nowacki, and sound designed by Joel Gimbell II), Margo Hall does a splendid job of eliciting powerhouse performances from Morales and Riddley, two magnetic performers who bring a surge of electricity to the stage whenever they are in front of the audience.
The two leads receive strong support from Mimia Ousilas as the shy young sister and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as the recovering stepmother who ends up being interviewed for a job at Starbucks by her own stepson (Tray). William Hartfield has some nice moments as Tray's baggy-pantsed childhood friend (Junior) as well as a black hipster ordering a complicated cup of coffee.
As she did so beautifully in tokyo fish story, Lee delivers moments of great poignancy and poetry through her words as well as her characters' actions. Tray's inherent goodness manifests itself in a beautiful speech in which he tells Lena why Merrell deserves a break and offers his grandmother a lesson in forgiveness as another form of tough love. Similarly, when Merrell freezes while trying to learn how to use an electronic cash register, Tray quietly comes to her rescue with fingers moving so fast and effortlessly that it communicates the difference in motor skills that come naturally to different generations.
This is an achingly beautiful and thrilling new drama, lovingly crafted and magnificently acted by a tight ensemble. While I look forward to future works from Kimber Lee, I have to admit that it has become frighteningly easy to take for granted the artistic contributions that Cathleen Riddley and Margo Hall make to the Bay area theatre scene. These are two highly gifted and deeply passionate artists who always set the bar for excellence at impressive heights. Rest assured that young David Morales is already nipping at their heels.
Sam Hurwitt | June, 29, 2017
We the people are inured to gun violence. Death by gunshot is so common in this country that it’s rarely considered newsworthy unless it’s a mass shooting. Even after the most horrific massacres, the immediate political response is to resolve to do nothing whatsoever to make it any harder for such a tragedy to happen again. And again. And again.
Every shooting victim has a story, and to know that story is to feel compassion that we as a nation seem ill-equipped to consider. Again and again, people with a vested interest in keeping guns on the streets speak ill of the dead, try to dig up dirt to make it seem like that person had it coming. They want desperately to believe that some people deserve to die, because we as a nation are in the killing business, and business is booming.
The latest show at Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, Kimber Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” is all about bringing to life a promising and compassionate young man who was reduced to a statistic when he was shot dead in a snap decision by some touchy kid who might not have even thrown a punch if he hadn’t had easy access to guns. Lee’s play was developed at the 2013 Bay Area Playwrights Festival before premiering at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2014.
Shotgun’s last show, David Greig’s play “The Events,” was about a survivor of a mass shooting struggling to understand what happened and why. Lee’s play deals with some similar themes, as Tray’s grandmother grapples with her grief and tries to find out why he was shot, but the incident itself is discussed only briefly.
Mostly the play is about Tray himself, played with open-hearted playfulness and occasional prickliness by Davied Morales, and the weight of his absence. We begin with his grandmother Lena (Cathleen Riddley, formidable in her fury) forcefully insisting in a brutally eloquent monologue that we do not start the story with her despair as just another grieving loved one. It should be his story, not hers.
We follow Tray’s frustration trying to compose a personal essay for his college scholarship application. We witness the tenderness with which he looks after his little sister, Devine (11-year-old Mimia Ousilas, bright and withdrawn), who comes out of her shell whenever he’s around. We see his easy friendship with Junior (William Hartfield, amiably raucous), who’s always hanging around on the street and possibly getting into trouble.
Most tellingly, we see how forgiving and generous he is with someone who let his family down terribly in the past but is trying to do better now (shamefaced and anxiously fidgety Erin Mei-Ling Stuart).
The play moves freely between the time shortly before and shortly after Tray’s death. With Tray frequently strolling onstage mere moments after his absence has been keenly felt, the back-and-forth between past and present is so fluid that at times you might wonder whether the story is actually wandering in and out of an alternate reality in which Tray never died. That cognitive dissonance is amplified by Devine continuing to talk about Tray as if he’s still there.
One of the most heartbreaking moments in the show simply consists of her setting a place for her brother at the table as if he’s still coming home.
Director Margo Hall drives home the senseless tragedy of Tray’s death powerfully in her staging. Lighting designer Allen Wilner punctuates scene changes with searchlights scanning the stage as a grim reminder that this place — this neighborhood, this country — is a crime scene.
From time to time the thumping bass of a slowly passing car haunts Joel Gimbell II’s sound design, suggesting that at any moment somebody else’s story could come to a sudden halt. Even if it doesn’t happen right here and now, we know it’ll happen again all too soon.
Emily S. Mendel | June, 29, 2017
Davied Morales as Tray in brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Shotgun Players. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Kimber Lee’s powerful and profound one-act drama, brownsville song (b-side for tray) takes an all too familiar headline of a young black man gunned down in his Brownsville, Brooklyn neighborhood and develops it into a relatable personal tragedy that left many in the audience teary eyed, including this reviewer. Inspired by the actual murder of Tray Franklin, a black student and talented boxer, brownsville song (b-side for tray) is, in essence, a call for empathy and a call for action.
As the play begins, indomitable yet grief-stricken grandmother Lena (wonderful Cathleen Riddley), appears to be responding to an unseen interviewer, perhaps the audience. “Do not begin with me,” she says, “I been scooped out like a jack o’lantern, carved up… I’m not the beginning; I’m the end.” Though not clear at first, we learn that Lena wants us to know the truth about the life and death of her beloved college-bound grandson, the spirited, bright, good-hearted, hard-working, promising Golden Gloves boxer, Tray (terrific Davied Morales). His life is not just “the same old story, a few lines in the newspaper.”
From this juncture, the narrative weaves back and forth in time as we observe the family dynamics among Lena, Tray, his tentative, scarred younger sister Devine (talented newcomer Mimia Ousilas) and mother Merrell (excellent Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) who abandoned Tray and Devine as a result of alcohol abuse. Scenes appear out of chronological order, weeks and days before and after the shooting, but the picture of a fiercely loving family emerges only to be savaged by brutality, and not for the family’s first time.
Playwright Lee wisely has chosen the subtler path of having Tray’s sad and pointless death occur off-stage. We learn about the details only through a conversation between Lena and Tray’s gang-affiliated friend, Junior, well-acted by William Hartfield, who can’t seem to look Lena in the eye. And with an inevitable response, Junior calls for retaliation. We hope that he will heed Lena’s call for healing and break the cycle of violence.
Margo Hall’s dramatic direction and Kimber Lee’s poetic language capture the language of the streets, while emphasizing the moving and loving scenes among the family members, which could have veered towards the clichéd. With electrifying acting and direction, and effective staging, the 100-minute production is a poignant reminder of the vagaries of life and death of young black men in neighborhoods like Brownsville throughout our country. brownsville song (b-side for tray) is an outstanding theatrical experience. Don’t miss it.
The lyrical ferocity of the preamble to Kimber Lee's play moves the characters and the language directly into a mode of plainspoken realism.
Adult Black men are absent from Kimber Lee’s play brownsville song (b-side for tray). No dads, uncles, or grandfathers appear on stage. The opening monologue is an aria of rage and despair performed by Lena (Cathleen Riddley). Both her son and her 17-year-old grandson Tray are already dead. Sitting at the center of the stage, she addresses the audience directly. Lena is accusatory: We are complicit in their deaths because of our indifference. In effect, she’s saying that Black lives matter — but not to you. Lee hopes to change that apathy by going beyond the headlines that announce the deaths of Black men of any age.
After the lyrical ferocity of this preamble, the playwright then moves the characters, and the language, directly into a mode of plainspoken realism. You recognize the setting before Lena even begins to speak. There’s an ordinary kitchen table, refrigerator and sink stage left. On the right, a stairway that leads to a punching bag which represents the gym where Tray (Davied Morales) trains after school as a boxer.
Tray lives with his grandmother and his younger half-sister Devine (Mimia Ousilas). After indicting the audience for our detachment, Lee includes a child’s point of view to gain our sympathies. This shift alters the pitch of the rhetoric. Instead of telling a story about the victim and his family’s grief, the script works backwards in time. And, because it’s largely a memory play, Tray is recalled by his relatives as nearly ideal, a neighborhood saint.
Of course, this is a reasonable response for the bereaved, to forget or smooth over the flaws of someone they’ve loved. Especially if the upswell of emotion is for a promising young man whose loss was sudden and violent. In one scene, Tray encourages his grandmother to forgive Devine’s mother Merrell (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), a recovering addict who abandoned her child. His good nature irritates Lena until she relents and cries, “You’re a better person than I am.”
Scenes like this one provided some of brownsville song’s most satisfying moments. It starts as a dialogue between the two characters. Then Tray walks off stage leaving Lena alone in his empty bedroom. It’s a devastating shift from the happily remembered past to the grief-stricken present. What’s less dramatically satisfying is Tray’s lack of any discernible flaws. He behaves exactly right in every situation Lee creates for him and his family. The actor who plays him, Davied Morales, is engaging and charismatic but his only fault is procrastination. His college application essay is due and he’d rather be boxing.
But Lee doesn’t take up or elaborate on that metaphor either. If he’s a devout pugilist, his passion for the sport is barely explored. He’s endowed with an enormous capacity for forgiveness but, for a character in a drama, very little moral complexity. In doing so, the playwright performs a 180-degree turn that targets an entirely different audience. It’s no longer the detached she wants to wake up. Instead, Lee wants to comfort families of the bereaved. It’s understandable that she makes him blameless but where are his confusing emotions, his adolescent hormones?
When a neighborhood friend named Junior (William Hartfield) describes to Lena what happened on the day Tray died, it abstracts his death off-stage, into something expository. The explanation also felt rushed, as if the details weren’t crucial to our understanding of the narrative whole. As much as Lee creates a positive affirmation of a young Black man’s life, it’s Lena’s burden of sorrow that feels all too real.
Curtain Calls by Sally Hogarty: Summertime theater productions emotionally captivating
Sally Hogarty | July, 5, 2017
You only have a few more weeks to see Shotgun Players powerful presentation of “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which runs through July 16. at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., in Berkeley.
Kimber Lee weaves an eloquent tale of a young man named Tray who becomes a victim of gun violence. In Lee’s work, Tray is not a number but a person with a family and plans for his future. Raised by his no-nonsense grandmother and devoted to his little sister, Tray navigates his dangerous Brooklyn neighborhood as he focuses on going to college.
The show starts with the grandmother, Lena (the marvelously talented Cathleen Riddley), talking about Tray’s senseless death and admonishing an unseen entity to focus on Tray’s life not his death.
And so, the action goes back in time to Tray (a captivating, compelling Davied Morales) playing football with his little sister, Devine (the lovely 11-year-old Mimia Ousilas). Other characters include: Tray’s stepmother (a riveting Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), and his boyhood friend (nicely done by William Hartfield), who is now a gang member.
Lee shows the challenges, joys and tragedies of family life accentuated by the violence just outside the front door.
Director Margo Hall does a masterful job bringing out the humor, thus making the serious moments that much more powerful. She has a dream cast to work with, especially Riddley and Morales who have a great rapport on stage.