Victory Gardens Theater. By Marcus Gardley. Directed by Chay Yew. With Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Tosin Morohunfola, Ernest Perry Jr., Jacqueline Williams. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Playwright Marcus Gardley says his new work was originally inspired by the epidemic of gun violence in his hometown of Oakland, California. But he set The Gospel of Lovingkindness in Chicago, where it's receiving a powerful world premiere at Victory Gardens. Director Chay Yew says Gardley has been inspired to tell Chicago stories since joining VG's new playwrights ensemble in 2012 (indeed, Gardley will have another new work onstage at the Biograph next season, A Wonder in My Soul, that's set in Bronzeville). Lovingkindness's tale is sadly all too common in Chicago, but its ultimate yearning hopefulness is universal.
Gardley's collagelike piece follows two parallel South Side stories. Mary Black (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is a single mother who's done everything right in raising teenage son Emmanuel (Tosin Morohunfola), a good kid who goes to school on the North Side and got to sing for President Obama at the White House. But Mary can't prevent Emmanuel from falling victim to a street shooting blocks from their house.
Mary's working through her grief toward a newly activist resolve is interwoven with the story of another young man, Noel Sable (Morohunfola again). "Folks call me No," he says at a job interview, and that seems to describe his lot in life. While his own single mother (Jacqueline Williams) has done her best for Noel too, all of his potential paths out of the projects close off one after another: He's not great at school, he's not good enough at basketball, he's just become a teenage father, and his interviewer for a low-wage job at Walmart won't even look him in the eye.
The whole universe seems to conspire to make him "a stereotype, a statistic," as his mama says. "I spend so much time trying to convince people what I'm not," Noel explodes, "sometimes I forget who I am."
The matter-of-factness of the cop (Williams) who delivers Mary the news, and the air of inevitability with which some others receive it, are infuriating and heartbreaking. Emmanuel's own father (Ernest Perry Jr.) essentially tells Mary she needs to buck up and get over it: "Most folks have to lose at least one."
Yew's staging, on a fascinatingly ethereal set over which Kevin Depinet hangs floating signifiers of place and memory, isn't all somber; in fact, it's often blisteringly funny, and also contains well-handled bits of otherworldly whimsy, as when Mary and Noel are each visited separately on the Pink Line by a 152-year-old Ida B. Wells (Williams, absolutely delicious here and as Mary's post office coworker).
Gardley occasionally lapses into didacticism—Mary's debate on a local radio show with a suburban legislator who advocates sending the National Guard into her neighborhood is the play's stagiest moment. But this passionate Gospel is one we desperately need to hear sung.