A black grandmother’s perspective

brownsville song’ at Philadelphia Theatre Company (third review)

2 minute read
"Scooped out like a jack-o'-lantern”: Cook, Ganey. (photo © T Charles Erickson Photography)
"Scooped out like a jack-o'-lantern”: Cook, Ganey. (photo © T Charles Erickson Photography)

In the opening scene of brownsville song: b-side for tray, the words of matriarch Lena (Catrina Ganey) resounded within my soul. “I am scooped out like a jack-o'-lantern,” she says of losing her grandson Tray to gun violence.

Being a black grandmother myself, raising my grandson in West Philly, I was drawn to Lena and the strength she displays. I relate to the challenges a single black woman faces in raising grandchildren. Many, many times I also have felt scooped out, that there is just no more left to give.

Playwright Kimber Lee shows the audience how wheat sometimes has to grow along with the weeds in violent neighborhoods. She shows us through the eyes of a strong, determined, and proud black woman how sometimes no matter what you do, you cannot protect your children from the brutal encounters they may have. At the same time, though, she wants us to see that not all young black men who are victims of violence are associated with drugs and gangs.

The scars of abandonment

Curtiss Cook Jr. played the role of Tray in a way that made me think of my own grandson. You could see his struggle while trying to please his grandmother, by becoming someone she could be proud of, and taking on the role of a loving brother and protector of his little half-sister, Devine. However, behind it all there is an anger in him that is possibly being soothed by his choice of sports: boxing. Many cannot comprehend how much anger and pain exist in the children who have been abandoned. Even those lucky enough to have grandparents to step in have deep scars that can cut to the very core of a child’s mental health.

Devine (Kaatje Welsh) poignantly portrays how damaging abandonment can be for children; she is aloof and very sad. She was left behind a dumpster at four years of age by her drug-addicted mother, Merrell (Sung Yun Cho), and found there a day later by her grandmother, Lena, who took her home and raised her as her own.

Merrell has gone into rehab and is desperately trying to get her life back on track. The playwright shows that this road is a long and painful one, but one that can be achieved with the love and forgiveness of family. Lena does not make this easy for Merrell, but Tray gives her back the wisdom of forgiveness that Lena has taught him over the years.

The characters’ lives are so parallel to what I have witnessed raising sons, and now a grandson, in the city of Philadelphia that I was brought to tears and knowing laughter as I watched. Kudos to the Philadelphia Theatre Company for producing what is needed in this time of heightened violence in our neighborhoods.

For Dan Rottenberg's review, click here.

For Naomi Orwin’s review, click here.

What, When, Where

brownsville song (b-side for tray). By Kimber Lee; Eric Ting directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through May 31, 2015 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard), Philadelphia. 215-985-0420 or

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