The Gospel Of Lovingkindness at Pillsbury House Theatre

Thomasina Petrus, Namir Smallwood and James A. Williams in The Gospel Of Lovingkindness. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Thomasina Petrus, Namir Smallwood and James A. Williams in The Gospel Of Lovingkindness. Photo by Rich Ryan.

As the father of an eighteen year old son, I readily understood, in Marcus Gardley‘s moving The Gospel Of Lovingkindness (at the Pillsbury House Theatre, through June 28), Mary Lee Black’s simple statement, “I put everything I had into that boy.”

In Gospel, Mary’s son Emmanuel is murdered: For his shoes! So his dim killer can impress a gang leader! As I watched the play I kept thinking, what would I do if something like this happened to Michael? Could I go on living? We all have an Emmanuel – a child, a brother or sister, a cousin, a niece or nephew, a neighbor boy. Our hyper-awareness of this vulnerability lends The Gospel Of Lovingkindness a savage, breathless, you-can’t-peel-your-eyes-away edge.

The death of Emmanuel, at first, shocks Mary into aphasic speechlessness. She’s onstage, her back to us. Still, there’s expressiveness, as she navigates her “cocoon” of grief. Finally, she emerges. Faces us. Her speech at Emmanuel’s funeral is an at-your-throat combination of emotion and outrage. Mary becomes a fierce advocate for the victims of street violence, trying to influence an indifferent city to build youth centers and gyms, confronting cynical politicians, trying to scrub the long-gone bloodstain off the sidewalk.

On one level, The Gospel Of Lovingkindness is simple – the story of yet another inner city killing and its grim effect on the victim’s family. And yet it’s not. Gardley uses multiple-casting in a canny way; it gives the play size and power. (And it allows Gardley to play a very nifty dramaturgical trick, which of course I am not going to reveal.)

The city of Chicago is a character onto itself. But Gardley doesn’t give us the Chicago we’ve come to love, the city of outstanding theaters and cultural organizations and beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings. No: this is the Chicago of howling winters and boiling hot summers. Of pointless violence. Uncaring politicians. Gangs. Addiction. Riding three buses and the el to a minimum wage job. This ugly reality of the city permeates The Gospel Of Lovingkindness, despite its theatricality (one of the characters, Ida B. Wells, is 170 years old).

Mary is played by the great Thomasina Petrus, her hair pulled back into a severe bun, her face alive with emotion. She pulls us in, with her vivid love for her son, and her adamant refusal to let his death turn her bitter. Petrus’s Mary, without trying to be, is a true hero. Her reaction to the anonymous “gift” of her deceased son’s shoes will stay with me for a long time. Why this actor isn’t featured in every other play in the Cities eludes me.

The other actors match Petrus’s intensity. The always-remarkable James A. Williams plays his characters with unhurried and deliberate passion. As Emmanuel and Noel, Namir Smallwood brings youth, and power to the play. You won’t want to miss his amazing final monologue. Finally, Aimee K. Bryant provides a hyper-energized counterpoint to all her characters. She is especially yummy as Ida B. Wells. The Gospel Of Lovingkindness, among its many virtues, offers an excellent showcase for four of the area’s best actor artists.

Marion McClinton directs with a sure hand, drawing vivid performances from his cast and making sure that the proceedings never get treacly or weepy, a danger with this play. The designers do excellent work on the Pillsbury House shoestring.

I’m a critic and although I don’t really feel like it, I have to take Gardley to task for giving us a play made with (energy-sapping) short scenes, filled with (too many) blackouts. It’s almost as though the material wants to be fiction. There. I said it. Feel free to disagree with me.

And don’t miss The Gospel Of Lovingkindness.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark has just been published by Familius, Inc. For further information, please visit



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