You may be wondering how brownsville song came to be titled a ‘song’. Why would a writer choose to describe her play as a song when it’s not a musical? For Kimber Lee the answer is pretty straightforward: it simply felt like the right title for the work. "I wanted [it] to be something musical because it felt to me there was something musical in the rhythms of Brooklyn," Lee says.
So she set out to compose for the stage a chorus of words, phrases, and pauses that lives side by side with the soundscape of everyday life in Brownsville: subwoofers thumping in the distance, cars whooshing by, and subway cars rattling on the overhead tracks. The structure of the script on the page sometimes appears more like poetic verse than dialogue, but that’s not to say it isn’t true in sound to real life speech. Lee insists, “the aliveness of the play lives in the rhythm and flow of the language.”
In “a note from the playwright” that prefaces the script she specifies how exactly to approach her unique writing style. “Pauses or silences in this play are not negative space,” she explains.” they hold the space of a thought just as a rest in a musical score holds the space of a note.”
It sounds simple but Lee’s vision for the sound of brownsville song gave our actors quite a challenge to work with. “From the beginning I was struck by the language of the play, which in some ways is very poetic,” explains Catrina Ganey who plays Lena in Long Wharf’s production. “A lot of it is not so much complete sentences, but phrases. So you as an actor have to know the inner monologue. Each word, each phrase has a different meaning, so that’s been a challenge for me.” Curtiss Cook Jr., who portrays the titular character, admits he was probably the cast member who struggled the most at memorizing the play’s dialogue. “The text in this play is a little weird for people, especially if you’re classically trained in acting and voice.” However the story behind the words helped him surmount the challenge. “Because this story does relate to me in a way, it’s not as challenging to feel where he’s (Tray) coming from.”
So if the dialogue of brownsville song functions musically, what about the actual music of the show: the sound design? What role does it play in the show? Director Eric Ting says sound design “allows a space like our set for brownsville song to really take on the multiple locations that exist within the play.” The unique definition of time and space was what sound designer Ryan Rumery thought as well was the biggest challenge he faced designing for this script. “We had to pick out sounds that were iconic, and sounds that the audience would understand.” However, even for him, Lee’s dialogue was the most important sound of the show. “I am a minimalist,” Rumery says, “so I don't ever want to over design a play. To me the text and story is important, not what I am doing.”
- Kimberly Shepherd