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‘Brownsville Song’ at Stageworks tells important story but falls short on believability

TAMPA — In some ways, the latest offering at Stageworks Theatre comes loaded with promise.

A young man with a lot of motivation, personality and wisdom dies in a random and violent way. In telling his story, we also get a glimpse of life in a Brooklyn neighborhood marked by crime and poverty. Brownsville Song(B-side for Tray) also tells the story of a family coping with the effects of addiction through a mother seeking to reconnect with her children after rehab.

In this case, such hopeful elements do not coalesce to create a professional production. Actors under Ron Bobb-Semple’s direction rarely achieved more than a momentary credibility, and that is not enough to carry even a 90-minute show.

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The story is based on the short life of Tray Franklin, 20, who was fatally shot in 2012 in Brownsville. Playwright Kimber Lee has tweaked some details, such as making Tray Thompson 18. But it’s basically the same story. Tray is an aspiring boxer who is applying for a scholarship. Merrell, a stepmother in recovery, is tutoring him to write an essay for the application. She especially wants to reconnect with her daughter Devine, Tray’s younger sister played by Kaylee Tupper Miller.

But it all begins with the shooting as grandmother Lena, who had to assume the child-rearing role when everyone else was either addicted or dead, faces the audience and shares her pain.

She wants the world to know that her grandson was not caught up in gangs, that he was working nights and weekends saving for a car. She speaks with urgency, not wanting to be just "some poor old woman crying on your evening news, and then nothing." The rest of the show skips around in time, from Lena enlisting a friend of Tray’s (DuJuan Cole) to find out what led up to his death to family scenes involving Tray or his Starbucks job.

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In Sunday’s show, which started 15 minutes late, Eileen B. Lymus-Sanders delivered this opening scene more like an actor acting than a grief-stricken woman. She goes cooks and cleans, even does aerobics to a CD or radio. She also stays on top of Tray, sniffing out his secrets and holding him accountable. As Tray, Tony C. Collins is likable but a bit listless, at times barely audible.

The tension between Lena and Merrell flares early and unbelievably, as the grandmother gets in her face and shouts. The production contains bright spots here and there. A scene between Tray and Merrell (played credibly by Caitlin Green) shows a certain tenderness, as he trains her at Starbucks as she tries to keep him on task in the essay.

Grief ultimately brings these estranged relatives together, leading to some of its best moments. But it takes an hour and 20 minutes to get there.

At its core, Brownsville Song reads like a loving obituary of a man who died way too soon. It lends voices we don’t hear often enough. But a show must be believable if audiences are going to pay attention to its messages. This show falls short in that most critical area.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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