Even before “The Gospel of Lovingkindness” begins, its central character, Mary Black, is on stage. Black, played by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, rocks back and forth in a chair as the audience members file in and take their seats. Her presence, with its transgression of conventional theatrical boundaries, puts her character almost too close to the audience for comfort. Even though she does not speak a word until almost twenty minutes into the play, her stern aspect constantly demands the audience’s attention. She is inescapable. “Gospel” itself is, too. It is frank, it is immediate, and it is jarring. It does not hesitate to shake our hearts and our minds.
Mary Black first rises from her chair when she gets the news that her son, Noel, has been murdered. Noel (Tosin Morohunfola) was an ambitious teenager whose singing talents got him a gig performing at the White House. A few days after his mother buys him brand-new Air Jordans, another teenager (also played by Morohunfola) shoots him dead trying to take the shoes. “Gospel’s” story then splits into two parallel threads. One follows Mary’s quest to raise awareness about gun violence and social injustice on the South Side, so that her son’s death will not have been in vain. The other goes back in time to follow the downward spiral of Emmanuel, Noel’s shooter, who turns to crime to help provide for his newborn (out of wedlock) child.
It is rare that a piece of media can put forward an overt political agenda (education reform, gun control) without becoming stale or distastefully blunt, but “Gospel” has a message subtly woven within its compelling plot. Mary Black’s campaign for justice on the South Side allows playwright Marcus Gardley to insert political statements about subjects ranging from gun control to welfare. The play suggests institutional reforms, such as drastic overhauls of the public education system, but also provides moral advice for the individual, encouraging the kind of neighborly love whose absence helps pave the way for the play’s tragic events.
Despite the sincerity of this message, “Gospel” is never preachy, thanks in part to Gardley’s dexterous writing. Gardley’s characters are constantly miscommunicating their intentions or failing to communicate at all, in ways that underscore the desperation of the play’s world. The dialogue is fluid, natural, and often wrenchingly emotional. The parallel narratives allow the play to cover more ground than its ninety minutes should allow. We watch the hopeless Emmanuel fall victim to his situation in exactly the same ways Noel was lucky not to; by the time he raises his gun to shoot, we see that he has chosen to do so only because economic and social injustices have made it impossible for him to survive otherwise.
“Gospel” is also made more subtle and haunting by the sparseness of its style. Most of the few props on set (a door, an L stop sign, a radio station’s “ON AIR” light) are suspended eerily above the stage, illuminated by a spotlight only when they become relevant. And every actor in the play but Bruce (there are only three others) is used for numerous roles, often to chilling effect. Morohunfola plays murderer, murdered, and also a talk show host who discusses the dangers of gun violence. Jacqueline Williams, the play’s other female actor, shows up in a dozen roles, from a postal worker to Emmanuel’s mother to the ghost of Ida B. Wells. The scarcity of new faces on stage gives the play a stirring universality. A character can always pop up as someone else, underscoring the play’s demand for generosity and compassion—in a word, lovingkindness—in both personal and political realms.
Marcus Gardley was not born in Chicago; he moved here only a few years ago. But there is nothing appropriative about “Gospel” (nor anything wrong with its being shown in a North Side theater). It does not make a spectacle out of the South Side’s struggles with violence, but rather identifies with, and sympathizes with, the tragedy that can befall ordinary, innocent people. Gardley, who is currently writing another play set on the South Side, was raised in Oakland, California, a city that’s no stranger to violent crime issues itself. His play is saturated with a specific, local urban consciousness; its tones and attitudes feel particularly Chicagoan. Its significance, however, is relevant to urban areas across the country, and the hope with which it ends is a hope meant to be shared by all its viewers.
This hopeful moment, however, only comes after ninety minutes of wrenching suffering. It is ultimately that suffering that will remain with “Gospel’s” viewers. We see not only murder but desperate poverty, institutional racism, ruined marriages, and absent fathers. Its story is not true, but we remember it because of the terrifying resemblance it bears to what is true.