The title of the new play brownsville song (b-side for tray)—now playing at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre through Nov. 16—may be lower-cased, but its story is not: An 18-year-old Brooklyn teen becomes a victim of street violence and leaves a grieving family to pick up the pieces. But playwright Kimber Lee’s treatment of the topic is decidedly lower-cased, opting for the shopworn tone of a litany of decades-old works on the same topic, only without their cumulative power.
The play couldn’t be more timely (even the name of its young victim shares the same first syllable of a much-publicized recent Florida shooting case). And Sheldon Best gives a terrific, layered performance as Tray, a restless but hard-working black high schooler who can’t escape the mean streets. Lizan Mitchell plays his sturdy-as-a-rock, no-sass grandmother Lena (whose character is forced to say things like ”Boy, did you fall on ‘yo head?”—sheesh); Taliyah Whitaker is his shy, stunted younger sister, Devine; and Sun Mee Chomet is the latter’s absent mother Merrell, recently back in town after a rehab stint.
But instead of truly getting inside the heads of Tray and his family in a freshly conceived way, Lee marks the territory with contrivances instead of actual discovery. (One whopper has Merrell apply for a job at Starbucks at the very same location as Tray, who then interviews her (!), a detail wrong on so many levels, least of all because there’s a Starbucks on nearly every corner of NYC.) ”Grief be a tedious motherf—er,” says the defeated Lena at the start of the play. But you might be repeating the same by the end of it. C-