Brownsville might ring a bell for New York theatergoers who frequented one of its many theaters in the late 1950s, before they folded. But now it’s rap fans and boxing aficionados that are more likely to be familiar with the troubled East New York neighborhood. Its abrasive streets have polished some great talent in both fields, including rapper Killah Priest and pugilist Mike Tyson.
However, these days it’s theater that’s coming out swinging from the neighborhood. Though she left the projects two decades ago, Elaine del Valle, a new talent on the Off-Broadway stage, is bringing theater audiences back with her to Brownsville.
The actress is not well known — yet. She’s been a voice on “Dora the Explorer” for more than a decade and will be seen in this fall on “The 2-2,” a CBS pilot about NYPD rookies. The woman with big brown eyes and a disarming smile grew up in Brownsville in the 1980s, when apartment buildings were riddled with crack vials and bullet casings.
“Brownsville Bred,” her first self-written show, began at Nuyorican Poets Café in 2009 and went on to win multiple awards that year. It’s now enjoying its Off-Broadway debut at 59E59 Theatres, directed by Pamela Moller Kareman.
In the one-woman play, Del Valle embodies the girl she was — an obstinately optimistic adolescent and teen, syncopating her grammatically incorrect sentences with yo’s and squeals. She lives with her parents, immigrants from Puerto Rico, and three siblings in the predominately African-American housing project Langston Hughes, which in her role as tour guide for the audience, she proudly cites as “the three tallest buildings in all of East New York.” Her impersonations poke fun at her parents and neighbors, but always with respect — even for “Crackhead Wanda” and crazy “Miss Clark.”
The Latino family is not entirely culturally isolated. Del Valle recounts “all the Puerto Ricans — all like 17 of us” gathering at outdoor acoustic rumba jams “to have us some real proud Puerto Rican fun.” Yet she’s disgusted with the “tousand” of salsa records her Papi plays all day long.
“We live in Brownsville, I wanna be black,” she pouts. The soundtrack of her youth and show includes Curtis Blow, Run DMC and her own raps. Re-enacting her audition at LaGuardia Arts high school, she tells the committee that she’ll sing the “Black National Anthem” and that it’s by “Shanequa Braswell” before acknowledging the made-up name to the audience with the aside, “They not gonna know.”
Though the play includes the daily specter of crime and violence in Del Valle’s childhood, the show is primarily a heartfelt tribute to Del Valle’s parents, especially her father, who died of AIDS after he had recovered from drug addiction.
Asked if telling any part of her family’s story can make her feel vulnerable, she answers, “Every part and no part. When you reveal things, it strengthens your ability to act and deal with things.”
In an interview before the show’s opening night, the actress was an apostle of positive thinking. “Don’t jump over your obstacles, stand on top of them. You’re above that now, not over it,’ I tell people.”
Del Valle speaks from experience. In a chilling section of the play, when young Elaine finally fights off a would-be rapist with her own fists, her terror is gradually erased by pride at her empowerment: “Oh man, that was the best thing that ever happened to me, yo.”