Marcus Gardley’s new play, “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” takes the form of a memory play. Yet it deals with issues that are every bit as of-the-moment as yesterday’s headlines.
The element of memory hits you from the moment you enter the Victory Gardens Theater, where Gardley’s world premiere work, directed by Chay Yew, is being brought to life by a cast of four highly skilled actors, three of whom play multiple roles with great panache.
Kevin Depinet, that ever-inspired set designer, has captured the play’s mournful world by suspending most of the essential signposts of daily life — a kitchen, grandfather clock, crib, window frame and more — from the rafters, and coating them all in tones of gray. In the midst of all these memories of things past sits Mary (Cheryl Lynn Bruce, the quintessential matriarch). A woman in late middle age, she is deep in thought and sorrow in her Bronzeville home. And out of her despair emerges the story of two mothers and sons whose paths cross in the most tragic of ill-fated events.
Mary’s son, Emmanuel (Tosin Morohunfola, a superb actor who can switch identities on a dime), is a lively, high-achieving teenager who commutes to a magnet school and has just been to the White House as part of a choral group performing in a Christmas program. Emmanuel has been raised by his mother, who dotes on him. His father is more or less in the wings, supplying a bit of extra cash when pressed, while also holding fast to the notion of having “average” expectations, while Mary wants something far better for her son.
Mary’s dreams will be shattered when Emmanuel is shot just a few blocks from home, ostensibly for a pair of Nikes — red Air Jordan high-tops, to be exact. The shooter, Noel (also played by Morohunfola), is the son of another mother (Jacqueline Williams, ever the fiercely funny firecracker). A tough-love sort of single mom who never made it out of the projects but holds down several jobs, she presses her son to give up on his ill-advised basketball dreams and find a job that will enable him to support the child he has fathered. Quickly frustrated by a minimum-wage entry position at Wal-Mart, Noel turns to his thuggish uncle (that peerless actor Ernest Perry Jr.), who hands him a gun and dares him to prove himself by snatching those Nikes. Noel survives, but for all intents and purposes his life is over, too.
It’s a familiar story, to be sure. And while Gardley deftly enumerates all the reasons that propel Noel to do what he did, it is Mary’s response to Emmanuel’s murder that he ultimately homes in on. Initially mired in grief and depression, she has a fantastical encounter with the early 20th century civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells (a beguiling turn by Williams), and gradually becomes a self-propelled activist — agitating, confronting the media and politicians, and begging for across-the-board unity in a fight to rid this country of its scourge of violence.
Gardley’s play, clearly a cry from the heart, is alternately poignant, tragicomic and preachy. But it has nothing terribly new to say, so feels like just one more prick to the conscience. And leaving the theater I overheard one patron say to the parking valet: “It’s the silver Mercedes.” There, in a nutshell, is where we are.