Even before our first rehearsal, members of the LCT3 cast and creative team for Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) immersed themselves in the play’s world by visiting Brownsville with director Patricia McGregor. Unfortunately, most of what’s in the press about this Brooklyn neighborhood focuses on its gun violence—especially among African-American teens who often join territorial gangs due to the lack of other opportunities. But when we visited the Brownsville Recreation Center, we were struck by the resilience, determination and joy in the people whose stories we heard.
Shirley Jones-Baisden is a community organizer who grew up in Brownsville, was mentored by Brownsville’s beloved, unofficial mayor Gregory “Jocko” Jackson, and now gives back to the neighborhood in innumerable ways. In one of her roles, she counsels families affected by violence, and has therefore seen lots of grieving families. If they aren’t already from families she knows, they come to feel like family. She mentioned a high school graduate who was killed by a bullet meant for someone else two days before heading off to college. She also told us the harrowing story of arriving at the hospital and realizing only then that it was her friend’s one-year-old son who was shot.
To save more of these children and teenagers, Shirley insists that the community needs to offer more opportunities and show them that there’s more to life than joining a gang. The Brownsville Recreation Center is a safe and active place with rooms and programs for classes, games, dance, basketball, swimming, and more. And there are events like Summerstage and Old Timer’s Day that are wonderful community-building occasions. They’re just never covered by the press, unless bullets are in the air. As Shirley stressed to us, the whole story isn’t violence, violence, violence; it’s that spirit and life aren’t given enough opportunities to flourish in Brownsville.
In Kimber’s play, she shows us not only how Tray’s life is cut short by violence, but also Tray’s adorable dance moves with his little half-sister, the sass and love toward his protective grandmother, his dedication to boxing, and his enormous capacity for empathy.
And check back soon for more about the LCT3 production of Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray)!
Natasha Sinha is the LCT3 Associate at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater.