"The Gospel of Lovingkindness" doesn't tell us anything we don't already know about gun violence. Marcus Gardley's elegiac drama -- in its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater -- examines the tragedy of a Chicago teen cut down in his prime. In some Chicago communities, a similar tragedy plays out almost daily. And the scourge doesn't stop at the city limits.
With candor and compassion, poet-playwright Gardley shows us the aftermath of pervasive violence: a mother's grief, a community's well-intentioned concern, the politicians' knee-jerk responses. Gardley's writing is vivid, his humor organic and his characters familiar. So much so, you forgive him when the play turns didactic and its tone becomes preachy. But the real power of "The Gospel of Lovingkindness" -- in a fine production helmed by artistic director Chay Yew -- has to do with how it resonates across geographic boundaries.
"The Gospel of Lovingkindness"★ ★ ★
Location: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, (773) 871-3000 or victorygardens.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through March 30. Also 2 p.m. March 19; no 7:30 p.m. show March 18 and 19
Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Metered parking, $12 valet
Rating: For high school and older; includes mature subject matter and strong language
The action unfolds in Chicago's Bronzeville, where Cheryl Lynn Bruce's everymother Mary resides with her teenage son Emmanuel (Tosin Morohunfola). He's a bright, fast-talking charmer recently returned from performing with his choir at the White House, a reference to Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago teenager shot to death blocks away from President Barack Obama's home, days after she played with her school band at his second inaugural.
After street violence claims Emmanuel's life, Mary's average Joe ex-husband (a good-humored Ernest Perry Jr). reminds her -- in an exchange gut-wrenching for its truthfulness -- she isn't the first to lose a child to gun violence, and she won't be the last. On the South Side, he says, "most folks got to give up at least one."
That reality is a central issue in a "Gospel" that also embraces fantasy. It comes in the form of ghostly civil rights activist Ida B. Wells (a feisty Jacqueline Williams) and in Kevin Depinet's set consisting of whitewashed furniture: a dining table, a crib, a picture window from which parents watch children play. The pieces hang high above the stage, beyond the reach of the characters, suggesting a normalcy unattainable in certain communities.
Inspired after a surreal encounter on the El with the spirit of 152-year-old Wells, Mary becomes an activist, urging residents to get involved to help stem the tide of violence drowning their communities. But the story doesn't end there. Gardley offers a parallel narrative centered on the shooter, a fundamentally decent teen named Noel (an intense, forthright Morohunfola, one of several actors playing multiple roles). He lives with his single mother, a wisecracking, compassionate pragmatist played by the excellent Williams.
After his dreams of a pro basketball career are quashed by Perry's tough but honest coach, new father Noel gets a minimum-wage job at Wal-Mart. Unable to support his family, Noel makes a fateful decision.
It's a decision desperate young men make every day. And it's exquisitely expressed by Morohunfola, who shows us the light dimming in Noel's eyes as his coach gives him the bad news. We see his fear ratchet up during his job interview with a store manager who hardly spares him a glance. And we hear the despair in his voice, as he expresses the impossibility of rising above a stereotype.
"I spend so much time trying to convince people who I'm not, I don't know who I am," he says, with bone-chilling resignation.
Morohunfola's is just one of the compelling performances delivered by Yew's veteran quartet, led by the inimitable Bruce.
We meet Bruce's Mary as she sits alone in her chair, in a state somewhere between dream and remembrance. We watch happy memories of her son's childhood replaced by agony that accompanies the news of his death when "the mind goes numb and the heart goes wild." It's one of several beautifully written moments expertly conveyed by Bruce, whose charged performance gives the play its emotional heft.
Ultimately, "The Gospel of Lovingkindness" emerges as a searing portrait of violence and loss. It ends on a hopeful note, but offers no solutions. That's not a criticism. Solving the problem isn't Gardley's job. It's enough that he ignites the conversation.