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The Rhythm of Grief

Date: Oct 30, 2014


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Though not a tuner, brownsville song (b-side for tray) has a musical sensibility. Hip-hop frequently blares from the speakers, and the characters deliver impassioned speeches that often sound more like lyrics than lines. In fact, the searing soliloquy that opens Kimber Lee's new drama at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater features a chilling sort of refrain, as a grief-stricken grandmother who recently lost her grandson to a senseless street shooting defiantly repeats, "He was not!" over and over and over again.

"I was actually supposed to be working on something else at the time and that first monologue just came pouring out of me," remembers Lee. An amateur boxer just like Tray, brownsville song's promising but ill-fated 18-year-old protagonist, Lee was inspired to write the show after reading a blog post by a fellow female pugilist. "She was coaching at one of the gyms owned by Teddy Atlas, who's a pretty famous boxing trainer," she says. "It was out in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, and they lost one of their kids to violence. He was a rising boxer and getting ready to go to college in the fall and had won a scholarship from a local community organization. Even though I didn't know him, I couldn't stop thinking about his family and what they were going through."

Despite similarities between the real-life victim and the character of Tray, the family at the heart of brownsville song is purely fictional. But in a country where the murder rate for African-Americans is four times the national average, Lee believes the play reflects a grim reality, one that should make citizens sit up and take notice. "There are young black men dying every day in struggling neighborhoods," says Lee. "We all get news of horrible things like this but they're in our consciousness and in the news for a very short amount of time before we move on to the next thing." And yet this tragedy got stuck in Lee's head—almost like a song. "There was something about this story I couldn't shake. It just kept coming back. I felt very helpless but I thought letting it drop would be an admission that it didn't matter... but it mattered to me."

With a nonlinear structure, brownsville song hops back and forth in time, so at points it's difficult to discern exactly where you are in the timeline, especially since some scenes (particularly the ones that explore how Tray's little sister handles his death), verge on surreal. But Lee believes that kind of puzzle actually makes for more involved theatregoers. "I'm a big fan of challenging audiences because they're smarter than people give them credit for," she says. "If you're asked to piece something together for yourself when watching a play, there's a sense of ownership that you don't have when everything is laid out for you. It's a way to recruit the audience's imagination and participation in the act of theatre that's in front in them."

Lee also feels the fractured framework reflects the peculiar rhythm of grief. "When you're in the first wave after a traumatic loss, time starts to do weird things," she explains. "You'll go pick up the phone to call someone and realize you can't. Even though they're dead and you're in mourning, they're still so present." Words that evoke rhythm and music are frequently used throughout the taut one-act play. Even the title is a music reference: the B side, a.k.a. the song few people listen to. It's a fitting metaphor for the show's message.

"We can't just let these kinds of things pass by in silence," Lee says. "It's hard to think of anything constructive to do. But maybe if we all hear these stories and have the feeling that they matter, we can start figuring out something together."


Raven Snook
is TDF's associate editor of online content

Photo by Erin Baiano