The opening of Brownsville Bred takes the form of a mini multi-media presentation, with the text of the eponymous Brooklyn neighborhood’s Wikipedia entry scrolling over video images of the Langston Hughes projects. As a device, it’s a little contrived, and shows an unjustified lack of trust in the material that follows – which is a rich, poetic, and starkly honest portrayal of growing up in Brownsville in the 1980s.
The woman whose journey into adulthood we witness over the course of the evening is Elaine Del Valle, and even without the text introduction to the play, her performance was expressive enough that she filled in any blanks for those of us unfamiliar with Brownsville — or its reputation. Del Valle expresses a deftness with emotions through her performances, making it possible for the audience to travel with her through a range of experiences representing the life that eventually took this performer out of Brownsville.
With only one performer on stage for an extended period of time, the one-person show is a difficult beast to pull off; it’s it’s to director Pamela Moller Kareman’s credit that she channels her performer and writer’s dynamism and energy so effectively into a journey that varies in pace and intensity. Moreover, Del Valle has – unlike many solo writer/performers – a life engaging enough, and dynamic enough in how it’s portrayed, that it is worth experiencing along with its creator.
Even when Del Valle’s story touches on darker points – for example, when she’s trying to meet her sister’s friend at the train station to return a math book, and is instead literally grabbed and dragged down block after block, in broad daylight, by a man threatening to rape and shoot her – her determination and grit keep audience members by her side, emotionally, throughout.
It would have been easy for Del Valle’s performance to become overcharged and overwhelming, particularly in the small B space at 59E59th, and for the first few minutes she seemed in danger of heading this way, with a perky smile and bouncy, unflagging optimism. Instead, she proved compelling, engaging, and focused on bringing the experience of growing up in the projects to her viewers. And the relentless positivity? It becomes evident over the course of the show that this may actually be another survival mechanism – and one that clearly worked, given where Del Valle winds up.
An excellent show, staged in a production that’s both charming and chilling, that shines a welcome light into one remarkable woman’s experience of growing up in Brownsville.