An Interview with Playwright Kimber Lee
This interview with Kimber Lee, playwright of brownsville song (b-side for tray), was conducted by Seattle Rep’s Literary Director, Kristin Leahey.
Kristin: What’s your connection with Seattle?
Kimber: I was an actor here for a long time, and though I haven’t lived in Seattle since 2007, it still feels like my home city.
Kristin: As a writer, your passion for your characters, their relationships with each other, and what they are collectively experiencing is both very eloquent and clear. Can you describe how your passion played a role in your development of brownsville song (b-side for tray)?
Kimber: In 2012, I read a very simply-written story on a blog about the loss of a young man in Brownsville. The brief post only contained a few facts about the young man who had died. But it lodged in my gut and wouldn’t let go. I kept thinking about this boy’s family and loved ones. I kept thinking about the tremendous loss of life in some of our communities, and how easy it is in this soundbite world for these losses to disappear from our consciousness, and how that is especially true for a neighborhood like Brownsville, which only makes the news when something bad happens. Then everyone forgets about it until the next incident, and nobody bothers to look more deeply into the fact that Brownsville has been an under-served, ignored section of New York City since its inception. Often there can be this sort of head-shaking resignation–“Oh well, that’s just what happens there”–or an assumption that if you look a certain way and live in a certain zip code, your life is worth less, you matter less, and this sort of wall silence descends around the loss.
And all of this was going around in a circle in my head. I didn’t know what I could do about it, what I could offer–how to bear witness in meaningful way. And I was trying to work on another project, but Lena’s voice came blazing from me, this push against that silence and forgetting.
And to be clear, this play is not about the young man from the blog post, whose name was Tray Franklin–I included several facts from that case, but the characters and relationships are completely fictional, although there are unfortunately many stories of similar incidents our country.
Kristin: Why did you decide to set this story in Brownsville, Brooklyn?
Kimber: The short answer is that Brownsville is where the young man I read about was killed. The deeper truth is that I believe we all bear responsibility for the systemic neglect which creates and perpetuates conditions that lead to the kind of challenges faced by a community like Brownsville. And then, those of us who can, avoid those neighborhoods because they are so “dangerous”–there is a great feeling of separateness, and though most of these places are a short train ride away, they can sometimes feel like they are on another planet. Why do we allow this to continue?
What is our collective responsibility here? What policies create and perpetuate these troubles? What are the forces that combine to make good options for a future for some of our young people seem impossibly out of reach? What is the untruth of the seductive “one who made it out of the hood” story-line, and how does it obscure our broader societal responsibility for the conditions in these neighborhoods? All of these questions swirl around for me, but the deepest truth about the writing of the play is that I simply wanted to bring that family’s pain and loss into close, personal contact with audiences who may never even have heard of Brownsville. I believe so strongly that we are all connected on a deep level, our humanity and our survival are so inextricably linked to our mutual well being, whether we live on Queen Anne or in Brownsville. And with every loss, our humanity is diminished.
As this play has traveled around the country, it has also remained an urgent matter to ensure that the picture of this community is whole, and not just another stereotypical depiction of the “dark, violent ghetto.” Brownsville is a very particular place that has seen more than its fair share of trouble, but it is also a place of great vibrancy, humor, love, and hope–and there are many incredible people there who are working for real change everyday for themselves and those around them.
Kristin: Thinking of another one of your passions, you box – an interest the character Tray shares with you. What’s your passion for boxing?
Kimber: I started boxing, as a lot of women do, as a way to stay in shape, and then I just got hooked. I love the rigor of it, the demands on both the physical and spiritual aspects of a person, the fact that there are no shortcuts in boxing. Natural talent may allow you to advance more quickly, but no one gets a pass on putting in the daily work. I love the way I get emptied out after a hard training session–there’s a meditative quality that settles over me after I’ve spent everything I got. And there’s no bypassing any of the stages of your development–you’re going to be bad at it, for a very long time, and everyone in the gym is going to watch you be bad. There’s a kind of strength you build internally when you have to come back into the gym, day after day, just being humiliatingly bad at it until hopefully, one day, you’re not. The only way out is through. I love the elegance of strategy in the ring, the chess game that is played between you and your opponent, and how your mental processes are inextricably linked to your emotional strength and physical reflexes and endurance. Every single challenge I have in my life, in work, in relationships–fears, habits, self-imposed limitations–all of those tendencies surface in maddening multitudes when I spar. Some days I beat them, some days they beat me. But even on the days when I struggle, there’s a spiritual and physical muscle being trained. I love it.
Kristin: The story of this family is not only told in realistic dialogue but through the beautiful lyricism of your language. As a reader, who are some of your favorite fiction writers?
Kimber: SO MANY I love. I don’t really know the precise way in which influence surfaces in my own writing, but I’m sure that the way I tend to inhale books gets metabolized into aspects of my writing. Recently I’ve been on a steady diet of Junot Díaz, Octavia Butler, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, a book by Jane Jacobs about urban planning, and a very strange book on the history of an island off the west coast of Scotland.
Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) plays in the Leo K. Theatre through April 24. Find more information about the production and purchase tickets on our website.