‘Gospel of Lovingkindness’ offers message for our time

Manu H. Kumasi as Manny in The Gospel of Lovingkindness at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Manu H. Kumasi as Manny in The Gospel of Lovingkindness at Mosaic
Theater Company of DC.
Photo by Stan Barouh.

The plainspoken poetry of the streets propels playwright Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, a searing look at disparities in our nation’s working-class urban neighborhoods. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the work holds a mirror up to the inequities and hegemonies the haves hold over the have-nots.

Former Theater J artistic director Ari Roth, founding artistic director of Mosaic, said after the Sunday opening: “This is all about getting to know our neighbors … because that’s how we understand the people who live next door to us.” In rapidly gentrifying cities like the District of Columbia or Chicago’s South Side, where Lovingkindness is set, that narrative is inescapable these days. Yoga studios and upscale cafes are sprouting rapidly, but street crime, robberies, burglaries and shootings are not abating.

Based on a torn-from-the-headlines incident concerning the murder of a successful high schooler for his sneakers just three weeks after being invited to sing at the Obama White House, Lovingkindness presents two single, working mothers and their teenage sons: one the victim, the other the perpetrator.

Gardley’s play takes us into worlds many theatergoers may know only from news reports on violence.


The Chicago teens at the center of the play each have dreams to fulfill, they each have loving mothers who raised them to be upright citizens, they each made choices that put them on divergent but equally destructive paths.

Director Jennifer Nelson has transformed this compact, four-actor play into expansive statement-making territory. Staged in the Atlas’s intimate Lab Theater, the hour and 45 minute work wrestles with the question of a life’s value on the inner city streets and how it’s nearly impossible to escape the poverty and inequity when you’re urban, poor and, in this case, a young black male. Back in the 1980s, murders over high-priced sneakers — specifically Air Jordans — grabbed national press attention.

Today, the city’s streets are mostly, many believe, safer often due to poorer neighborhoods gentrifying. That’s where Gardley’s story begins — and ends.

Manny, a good kid with a nerdy streak, begs his mom for a flashy pair of Air Jordans. When she borrows the money to buy them, she never expects he’d lose his life on account of those flashy red and white basketball shoes.

Noel is far less nerdy, but unlike Manny, he’d never have a chance of singing at the White House, as Manny did. An average high school basketball player, Noel has delusions that he will play in the big leagues, even after his mother scolds him to stay in school and focus on his studies.

He flounders at his Walmart stockroom job, shoulders the responsibility of fatherhood as a teenager and, ultimately, succumbs to the temptation of easy money on the streets. Both young men are played with equal commitment and intensity by Manu Kumasi, who transforms himself effortlessly.

Amid the tragedy, Gardley provides a glimmer of hope. Manny’s mother Mary (the brilliant Deidra Lawan Starnes) channels her grief into antiviolence work as she becomes a spokeswoman for anti-gun and anti-street crime campaigns in Chicago. Into this mix, Gardley has added the historic figure of early Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells (Erica Chamblee, equally adept at changing on a dime), who ran an anti-lynching campaign at the end of the 19th century, even protesting in front of the White House.

Meant to inspire Mary as she forges her own activist course, this character instead proves a distraction, adding little aside from an historic footnote to the gritty events and outcome of Gardley’s dramatic arc.
Designer Ruthmarie Tenorio covered the bare walls with graffiti and uses simple boxes and tables to delineate spaces. It would be flip to call this a soapbox drama, but, particularly early on, Nelson has each character mount a box to speak to the audience.

That rich and poetic street language Gardley crafted for Lovingkindness is both tough and edgy, yet gracefully wrought. Street slang and church preachings, mother-son heart to hearts and public discourse, eulogies and testimonies, are all part of Gardley’s literary toolkit. Interestingly his muscular language recalls another theatrical poet of the streets, mid-20th century Jewish playwright Clifford Odets, whose emblematic call to action, Awake and Sing, became an anthem for an earlier working-poor generation striving to overcome poverty, loneliness and unbearable circumstances.

Gardley hews closely to Odets’ path, while updating the era, the racial profiles of his play’s characters, but making a vivid and unforgettable case for social change on a broad-scale and deep level. He channels little-heard voices from the Chicago African-American community, but, of course, it’s a stand in for Everycommunity.

Mary and Miriam, the two mothers want the same thing every mother wants for her children: safe homes and streets, excellent educational opportunities and the gift of watching their babies grow to men with families of their own. Mosaic’s ultimate message in bringing Gardley’s work to Washington rings forth like an Odets’ call to action: These are our neighbors, they are us, we must fix this before it’s too late.

Street crime shortchanges these mothers. This gospel for the 21st century draws on an ideal shared equally in Jewish and Christian thought — of gemilut chasadim — lovingkindness. Mosaic’s goal is theater for action, theater for change and this play provides a reason to bring people together across racial, economic and social divisions. Gardley’s lesson and his play are as relevant for its issues as Odets’ play was in his day. Mosaic Theater’s production brings these issues home.

The Gospel of Lovingkindness by Marcus Gardley, Mosaic Theater Company, through Jan. 3, 2016. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington, D.C. Tickets $15-$50. Call (202) 399-7993 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.

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