By Ron Fassler
There is a program note in Chisa Hutchinson’s new play from the author herself that says: “This play is my answer to the White Savior Narrative, a simple assertion that you don’t have to be a particular race or age or class, for that matter—to be a blessing to someone else. That’s all. Enjoy.”
Hutchinson says it all when she says, “that’s all,” for she clearly wears her heart and her dramaturgy on her sleeve. There are not significant depths to plumb in this very short and straightforward dramatization of two people’s problems: that of Tino, a twelve-year-old prodigy for whom simple daily existence requires a sublimation of his excellent skills, and Bernadette, a fifty-ish lunch lady in his middle school, who is facing a newly diagnosed onset of Multiple Scleroses. Both are in tune with one another, and it is their relationship that is at the center of the play, which consists of short, often fragmented scenes, that owe their construction more to film and television than to theatre. Being schematic is not in any play’s favor, whereas on the big screen or small screen, the use of close-up aids immeasurably in the storytelling. I most definitely enjoyed (to use the playwright’s word) Surely Goodness & Mercy, but I wished that it had fleshed out its plotting and characters a bit more to make for a more nourishing meal of an evening.
Set in the present in Newark, New Jersey, the plot concerns itself with the teenage Tino (Jay Mazyck), suffering because of his mother’s untimely death (the details of which are believable and sadly all-too-true in this day and age), and for whom school is both a joy and an agony. He is aggressively smart, self-tutoring when his own teachers get things wrong in the classroom, and finding his own way to religion by reading the Bible for fun. He befriends a girl named Deja (Courtney Thomas) and their lunchroom conversations are a delight, especially when Bernadette (Brenda Pressley), the cafeteria worker is on their case. But Tinos’s home life is a disaster, with his Aunt Alneesa (Sarita Covington), immune to her nephew’s charms, and with a mouth that verbally assaults him whenever she’s not using her fists to beat him, or else a belt or an extension cord.
I do feel the play is worth seeing, especially acted as well as it is in the Keen Company’s production. Nicely staged and directed by Jessi D. Hill, it has what is essentially a four-person cast (a fifth actor, Cezar Williams, is used mostly as an off-stage voice). It is to the credit of the two young actors that they accomplish what they do, considering they are rarely believable twelve year-olds. Mazyck comes off as the nineteen year-old he is, no matter how much he slouches, and there is an adulthood in Thomas that can’t really be hidden. Again, they still manage to convey the sweetness and curiosity (and sometimes anger) that their characters are going through, and make me look forward to seeing them in their next endeavors. In a role that could easily steer itself to out and out villainy, Saria Covington manages somehow to show us the pain beneath her character, the forced-into-service foster mother to a nephew she wants nothing to do with. And the always engaging Brenda Pressley uses every inch of her natural charisma to bring a richness of soul to Bernadette, the lunch lady who ends up with a friend in her life she would never have chosen for herself.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Surely Goodness & Mercy is at the Harold Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, 412 W 42nd Street, New York, 10036 – run time 95 minutes, one intermission