The most outstanding thing about Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness is that it wrestles full-body with the most troubling issues of our times yet still is a joy and a treat to participate in. So long as it keeps its train rolling full steam ahead – which it manages to do for the majority of its one-act running time – it takes us through valleys of despair and fields of hopefulness while still serving up feasts of words, jokes, and rhymes.
Gardley’s story takes as its starting point the sad true story of a Chicago girl, Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed a mere week after performing at Obama’s second inauguration. Gardley digs in from there to seek out the root causes in society that could allow such a thing to happen.
Hadiya is replaced by one Manny (Manu H. Kumasi), a bright, cheerfully dorky kid with a beautiful singing voice who fatefully asks for a pair of much-coveted Air Jordans as a gift after his inauguration performance. After his murder, the tale spins outward and inward, following his mother Mary (Deidra Lawan Starnes) through her grief and search for answers, as well as a family consisting of Miriam (Erica Chamblee) and her son Noel (Kumasi again) who share the same city as Manny yet desperately search for a better fate.
Delivered in a tumbling series of sudden dialogues and monologues given to unseen characters, sometimes slipping quietly into rhyme and verse and other times exploding into it, Gospel stays compact and always clear thanks to the sure hand of director Jennifer L. Nelson. The actors traipse around Ruthmarie Tenorio’s spare but sneakily versatile set, often turning to include the audience directly in their challenges and questions.
This is an exploration of what growing up on the South Side of Chicago, in all its defeated promise, feels like for these characters, and what they wish it could feel like. While the play does start to become a little more blustery and detached when it gets abstract later on, for the most part is stays grounded, thanks to its focus on the practical matters which inspire these characters’ feelings.
Kumasi is excellent as both the optimistic Manny and the struggling Noel, as are Chamblee and Doug Brown in multiple roles (including Manny’s pie-loving, outwardly stoic father), but the night belongs to Starnes as the grieving mother. We watch her every subtle emotion as she journeys from terror and blank loss to anger and, through the intervention of the wandering ghost of civil rights hero Ida B. Wells (Chamblee), slowly becomes a crusader for a better world.
THE GOSPEL OF LOVING KINDNESS
December 9 – January 3, 2016
The Mosaic Theater Company of DC
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $50
There are no easy solutions to the economic and social problems behind the tragedies in Gardley’s story, Starnes’ Mary knows, but maybe there are, if only we could muster the willpower. If it becomes frustrating watching her go nowhere and everywhere in her painful but necessary quest, it is certainly a reflective of the real life situation when it comes to people like Noel who are given so few chances to even glimpse the American dream.
Yet, as Gardley puts it in the mouth of one of his characters, “children’s laughter [is] music played generation after generation.” The hope for renewal remains as evergreen as Manny’s cheerfulness, and there is always time for a chance encounter with a stranger to end in a positive action to improve one’s world – or, barring that, perhaps a rhyming rhapsody about the simple joys of fresh-baked pie.
The Gospel of Lovingkindness by Marcus Gardley . Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson . Featuring Manu H. Kumasi, Deidra Lawan Starnes, Erica Chamblee, and Doug Brown . Set Design: Ruthmarie Tenorio . Costume Design: Heather C. Jackson . Lighting Design: Dan Covey . Sound Design: Baye Straightforward Harrell . Props Design: Gina Grundman . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman