The agony of loss pervades Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray), the story of a fractured Brooklyn family that loses an 18-year-old son to gang violence. It’s at its most raw and piercing, however, when grandmother Lena (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) cradles the murdered Tray’s souvenir football in her arms and sinks onto his bed in tears. Though she opens the one-act drama in a monologue assuring us that the tale about to be told is NOT about her, the Lena character is the prism through which we absorb brownsville song’s heartache and its subtextual lessons about reconciliation and survival. The Moxie Theatre production features the estimable Thompson as Lena, and the intuitive Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who directed brownsville song as a staged reading in last year’s New Voices Festival at the Old Globe, is at the helm once again.
Lee’s play weathers its slow spots (most in the flashbacks with Tray and his stepmother), though the interchanging depictions of past and present don’t consistently allow the impact of a scene to sink in. But Cortez L. Johnson is a Tray to root for (and grieve for), and the affections between him, his grandmother and little sister (Zoe Sonnenberg) make knowing his fate all the more chilling.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat