“Brownsville song (b-side for tray)” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

There’s a disturbing tendency among theatre audiences in recent years to make social relevancy more important that overall dramatic quality. Put on a good but unexceptional show about race relations and, at final curtain, audiences will jump to their feet, cheer boisterously, clap vigorously, and then whistle while stamping their feet. Now I am totally in favor of works that explore contemporary issues, that shed light on the distressing side of our society, and I applaud them heartily when they are good but refrain from exuberance unless they are spectacular. I did not join the audience members who jumped to their feet the minute the last line of “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” was uttered.

This sincere (good but not great) show (written by Kimber Lee and directed here by Juliette Carrillo) is about the senseless street murder of Tray, a fine young man who happened to be Black and happened to live in one of the most dangerous sections of Brooklyn. His death was a tragedy on so many levels, yet the play itself seemed somewhat static and predictable with characters that were stereotypes.

The acting, however, was noteworthy. Denise Burse as Tray’s grandmother is simply fantastic. She’s got the vernacular down pat, and her slightest body movement illuminates her role and the story. Chinaza Uche as Tray captures all the pent-up energy, frustrations, and highs of a high school senior. He longs to be in the Golden Gloves and would much rather box that write the essays he needs to qualify for college scholarships. He adores his little half-sister and offers her tender, playful encouragement. He hasn’t yet gained full control of the arms and legs that seem too long for his body.

His death is senseless and heartbreaking. And the playwright certainly wants us to realize that it is just one among many. All Black lives do indeed matter, not just the exceptional ones. This is a good production of a play that has some flaws, but it’s not a theatrical event that deserves a near hysterical response from the audience.

Through April 24 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

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