The plot of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, a new play by Marcus Gardley now onstage at Victory Gardens Theater, calls to mind the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old King College Prep student who was shot and killed in a south-side park on January 29, 2013, just days after she performed with her school band’s drill team during President Obama’s second inaugural festivities. A grim coda to the city’s more than 500 homicides in 2012, Pendleton’s death remains a wrenching symbol of the devastating impact that violent crime has on so many of the city’s African-American young people.
Gardley changes some of the particulars. His flawed though impassioned script centers on the shooting death of a Bronzeville teenager named Emmanuel, who’s recently gotten back from singing Christmas carols for the first family at the White House. Whereas Pendleton was reportedly shot when gang members mistook one of her friends for someone else, Emmanuel is killed for his expensive Air Jordan high-tops by a prospective gang member during an initiation. But the results are the same: another promising black kid winds up dead, a family is plunged into grief, and politicians shake their heads.
The show starts with a series of poetic monologues in which Gardley deftly establishes Emmanuel’s cocky exuberance (played to the hilt by a charismatic Tosin Morohunfola) and the doting devotion of his mother, Mary. The boy makes a convincing case for why he deserves sneakers that cost $266, and when Mary butters up his father, Joe (Ernest Perry Jr.), with baked goods to get the money, we’re treated to Joe’s hilarious paean to peach cobbler, which seems to enumerate all the joys of living that Emmanuel will soon be cut off from.
After Joe and Mary learn of their son’s death, Joe notes that losing a child is what “average folks get” on the south side—a devastating line made all the more painful by Perry’s matter-of-fact delivery. Initially Mary retreats into silence, at least with the other people onstage. To us, she says her heart has broken into “shards of ice” and her throat is filled with a silent scream like “one endless echo.” In these early scenes, Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s Mary seems both weighed down with grief and torn asunder by it. Similarly, Kevin Depinet’s evocative set features several ghostly furniture pieces suspended from the ceiling, as if to suggest the way the family’s home has been blown apart.
But a portrait of loss—something similar to the Job-like suffering Bruce conveyed in Steppenwolf’s Head of Passes last year—isn’t exactly what Gardley is going for. After Emmanuel’s funeral, the play veers off in another direction. Mary is shaken from the private contemplation of her sorrow by an encounter on the CTA with the ghost of civil rights activist Ida B. Wells (Jacqueline Williams), who in real life died in 1931. She gives Mary a quick pep talk and, apparently needing no further encouragement, Mary promptly hits the social-justice circuit, speaking at political rallies and debating right-wingers on radio talk shows.
As it plays out in Chay Yew‘s staging, Bruce is allowed a couple more heartrending outbursts of emotion, but for the most part her job for the remainder of the show is to deliver one fiery sermon after another on gun control, racial inequality, and the dearth of educational and employment opportunities for those living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. To illustrate these points, Mary’s speeches are interspersed with scenes telling the tale of Emmanuel’s 17-year-old shooter, Noel (also played by Morohunfola).
Average in every way where Emmanuel is exceptional, Noel finds himself trapped in poverty with zero prospects and an infant to support. At his rope’s end, he tries joining a gang; stealing Emmanuel’s shoes is supposed to show his mettle. Portraying how the two boys’ fates become tragically linked could have been powerful, but Noel remains such a sketched-in, two-dimensional character—clearly tailored to fit the playwright’s schema—that his story feels remote and lacking in compelling specifics.
Ultimately, the same thing happens to Mary. Gardley can write a rousing speech, adroitly balancing poetic imagery, ribald humor, and the rhythms of the pulpit. But from the point Mary abruptly turns to activism, we get only glimpses of the human being behind the rhetoric. She becomes increasingly saintlike and otherworldly, eventually preaching a kind of radical, quasi-mystical brand of compassion and forgiveness that extends even to her son’s killer. In the show’s closing moments, Mary has an accidental run-in with Noel’s mother (Williams again), and the two of them join forces to scrub Emmanuel’s bloodstains from the street. Gardley obviously wants to end things on a note of reconciliation and uplift, but the characters lack the sort of credibility that would make the moment seem moving rather than manipulative.