By Charlene Baldridge
Moxie Theatre this month is presenting the West Coast premiere of Kimber Lee’s “brownsville song (b-side for Tray)” directed by artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
If Lee’s name sounds familiar, it should. She has San Diego connections and she is on the rise. In 2007 she was appointed associate artistic director of Mo’olelo. Prior to her time in residence, Mo’olelo produced her play “The Squirrel Wife” and commissioned her to write another, “The Adoption Project: Triad,” which was produced at Centro Cultural de la Raza, directed by then Mo’olelo Artistic Director Seema Sueko.
Apparently, Lee left San Diego to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin. She is currently based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was the 2014-15 Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage. Her play “tokyo fish story” will be produced at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in May and June.
Having noted Lee’s rise as a playwright, let it be said that “brownsville song (b-side for Tray)” does not disappoint. It is an excellent choice, unusually timely and affecting, and utilizes some of the area’s best actors of color, notably Cortez L. Johnson (“Honky” at San Diego Rep), Alex Robinson (who does a fine job of portraying two young black men, eighth-grader Zoë Sonnenberg (“Euridice” at Moxie) and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson (“Cell” at Mo’olelo and “’night Mother” at ion). The much-admired veteran San Diego actor Jyl Kaneshiro (“Precious Little” at InnerMission) completes the company.
Johnson portrays the title character, Tray, a beloved 18-year-old from the impoverished Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. We know from the get-go that he’s been killed (we learn the details later) because the play’s opening speech comes from the mouth of his grandmother, Lena (Thompson), who has raised him and his younger sister Devine (Zoë Sonnenberg) since their father was killed in the streets and their mother, Merrell (Kaneshiro), lost custody due to drug addiction. Tray and Devine, who have a playful, close and supportive relationship, have not seen their mother in many years.
To our amazement, Thompson mines the depth of feeling surging right under Lena’s skin. This is accomplished without “emoting.” She simply and forcefully intimates the woman’s goodness, power, wisdom and devastation.
Tray is not perfect, but he is on the path to turning his life around, and has applied for a scholarship to an Ivy League university. In the process of writing his obligatory entrance essay, he is assigned to work with Merrell, who has exacting standards despite their relationship and the fact she would like to make amends to Devine and Lena.
The playwright scatters intimate scenes through time, allowing each character to demonstrate their worth and sincerity without becoming paragons. One of the most endearing threads involves Tray, in the teacher role now, showing his new-hire mom how to ring up sales at Starbucks, where he is a supervisor. Sonnenberg turns in an amazing performance as Devine, with Michael Mizerany’s choreography enhancing her scenes with Tray, who coaches as she portrays a tree in the school’s “Nutcracker.” The child has a sense that her brother is there to help just as he always was. Beyond her years, Sonnenberg brings reality to her character’s casual unreality.
The simplicity brings home the play’s unrelenting reality.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.