One day while simply walking down the street, 18 year old Tray ends up being violently killed. That’s the story Kimber Lee tells in brownsville song (b-side for tray) and sadly it’s a story inspired by real life events, but this is not the only kind of story the streets of Brownsville Brooklyn are able to produce.
One day last winter while walking down the street in Brownsville just like Tray,
13-year-old Vidal Chastanet ran in to Brandon Stanton who runs the popular photography blog Humans of New York. Stanton took Vidal’s picture and asked him about the person who influenced him the most. “He told me about his principal, Ms. Lopez, and he explained how she had taught him that he mattered,” Stanton wrote. That picture of Vidal and his story about Ms. Lopez and his school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy (MHBA), ended up receiving over 1 million likes and shares on social media.
So influenced was Stanton by Vidal’s story and the response to it that he started a fundraising campaign for MHBA to take a class trip to Harvard. He ended up raising $1.4 million to be used for class trips, summer programming, and a scholarship fund, of which Vidal will be the first recipient. The campaign also spurred an invitation from the White House in February and on the same week that brownsville song opened at Long Wharf Theatre, MHBA was able to take a group of real life Trays and Devines from Brownsville to visit Harvard.
“Harvard’s smaller than I thought it would be,” one MHBA student said after seeing the campus. That kind of statement really encompassed the goal of the trip: to break the barriers of how these students see the world and what they think is possible for themselves. Similar hopes surround our production of brownsville song. There are hopes that the show will break some barriers as well: barriers that limit how people think of Brownsville, barriers that may have kept us from seeing the complex identities of the Brownsvilles that exist in our very own backyards, and barriers that keep certain parts of our community from feeling theatre is accessible or relatable to them.
Kimber Lee’s play is, at its core, a story of hope inspired by a community whose residents live, breathe, and die on its streets, and yet, somehow manage to thrive there as well. As Lee writes, “This play is dedicated to the people of Brownsville, and their tremendous heart, courage, humor and relentless hope in the face of sometimes overwhelming circumstances.”
– Kimberly Shepherd