According to the American Public Health Association, the annual New Haven homicide rate has tripled in the past five years. Of the 20 New Haven homicides committed in 2013, half of the victims were under 24. But these statistics can’t encompass a single human life, let alone the many lost each year to gun violence. At best, the names of the New Haven victims, most of them young men of color, are headlines. At worst, they receive no public attention or collective respect. While today’s journalists shed light on racial tensions in America, they do little to commemorate individuals.
But “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” now showing at the Long Wharf Theatre, does commemorate an individual, providing a fictional young black man with a voice.
The main character, Tray, and his sister have lost their father to gun violence and their stepmother to addiction. With his passion for boxing, his interest in school and the support of his grandmother, Tray has a bright future. Unfortunately, he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and, like so many others, ends up as an empty space at the kitchen table.
While thousands of families may share this story, “brownsvile” insists on making this a unique and personal narrative. Rather than speaking for all victims of gun violence, playwright Kimber Lee asks us to withhold judgment and take the time to understand the people behind the names.
Instead of following a strictly linear plot, the play interweaves scenes from before and after Tray’s death. With this stylistic choice, Lee creates powerful relationships between characters and a compelling narrative arc. During a particularly poignant moment, I broke into tears. And then, seconds later, I began to laugh as Tray embarked on a hilarious and joyous monologue, one filled with hope.
Catrina Ganey as Lena, Tray’s grandmother, gave one of the production’s best performances. During the talk-back, audience members called her the “perfect black grandmother”. She is sassy and compassionate, with a no-nonsense parenting style — Ganey brings the audience into Tray’s world. While warning us from the onset that she is not the beginning of Tray’s story (since she wants her grandson to speak for himself), her love and devotion propel him through the narrative, and into our hearts. She reminded me of my mother.
In my time at Yale, I have seen a number of Long Wharf Theatre productions. I have probably seen more Long Wharf productions than 95 percent of the student body. However, this piece was the most powerful one I’ve seen to date, not just because of the story itself, acted out in an enclosed, dark theater, but because of the social justice movements operating beyond the theater’s walls. The Long Wharf reached out to over 100 civic groups. Since tickets prices are a barrier between the arts and lower socio-economic groups, the theater provided tickets at reduced prices (as low as five dollars). Children and families from across New Haven have been able to experience and relate to Tray’s story.
In other words, the Long Wharf Theatre brought together a wide array of people, from regular theater goers to those more familiar with Tray’s upbringing. “Brownsville” offers hope to all audience members, and a final message — a life cannot be assessed by its end. Tray was not just a headline, or a number. He was a brother, a grandson, a friend.