Long before he founded Mosaic Theater Company earlier this year, Ari Roth was known for thoughtful, even provocative, theater. At Mosaic he is continuing that mandate, but also presenting intercultural theater.
The current production (second in its inaugural season) at Mosaic, Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, fits right in. Its consideration of gun violence, especially in American’s inner cities, the play is thought provoking and moving as well as, unfortunately, all too timely.
Civil-rights activist and Journalist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) who led a campaign against lynching in the late-1890s and appears as a visible ghost in the play, says, “There’s still lynching. Guns have replaced lynching.”
Intense almost to the point of visceral pain (for the audience) is Helen Hayes Winner Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mary, Manny’s mother.
But The Gospel of Lovingkindness, in its admirable complexity, doesn’t attribute inner-city (in this case, Chicago) violence only to outside causes, like racism and discrimination. It’s also about poor life decisions, but that becomes circular—because these are often fueled by prejudice and limited opportunities.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson stated that she also wanted to underscore the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, influencing the cycle of violence.
“I don’t have nothing,” says Noel, one of two young African American men taking very different paths in the play, both played by Manu H. Kumasi. “I’m trying all my life not to be a statistic or stereotype.”
Unfortunately, that is what he becomes, in his misguided attempts to “prove” he’s a man.
The other young man, Manny, seems to have a brighter future. He has just come back from a concert in DC where he performed at the White House. Then he is killed for his Air Jordan sneakers.
Nelson has produced an intimate panorama of a large communal problem in a large city. Add the excellent performances, and there is much to think about and feel after the play’s end.
Intense almost to the point of visceral pain (for the audience) is Helen Hayes Winner Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mary, Manny’s mother. Her impenetrable grief through most of the play leaves us heartsick, but there is strength underneath.
Doug Brown plays several roles, including Manny’s basketball coach; Joe, Mary’s suitor; and a representative of organized crime who sucks Noel into the life that killed his father.
Erica Chamblee portrays the ghost of Ida B. Wells—with some humor–and other parts, including Noel’s frustrated mother, who is trying to steer him in the right path.
Using (or not) a wig and a different persona to distinguish the two young men, Kumasi is naïve as Manny and a lost soul with potential as Noel—to equally good effect. He is probably most impactful as Noel.
Somehow, although the story of the young men is tragic, and The Gospel of Lovingkindness taps into painful emotions, one is left with a feeling of hope. Perhaps that is because the two mothers are determined to be “activists” in the fight against violence and for a better world.
Gardley’s play was inspired by the story of Hadiya Pendleton, who performed for President Obama at this second inauguration. The 15-year-old girl was killed one week later, a mile away from the President’s Chicago home.
Her parents were among the guests at President Obama’s State of the Union Address in February 2013.
The set, designed by Ruthmarie Tenorio, is powerful in its simplicity: a few crates, a table that doubles as a bed, an amorphous metal structure that serves as a dressing room.
Adding to the sense of realism is graffiti painted on the theater walls.
The lighting, by Dan Covey, is atmospheric, most notably during the scene where Mary tries to clean the sidewalk where her son was killed.
Heather C. Jackson is the costume designer. Gina Grundman is properties designer.
Several special events and community programs will take place during the run of the play, including: Interrupting Conflict to Cure the Contagion of Violence; and From Selma to Baltimore to DC: We Still Got Work to Do.
Advisory: 16 and up. Gun shots. Language.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.
The Gospel of Lovingkindness will run through January 3, 2016. It is located in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NW, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets and information, call 202-399-7993 or go online: www.mosaictheater.org.