Namir Smallwood has an interesting way to describe the efforts of director Marion McClinton, who leads Pillsbury House's latest production, The Gospel of Lovingkindness.
"He's like Yoda. He just guides the process. He lets you find it," the actor says.
"Yoda is an apt description," says Aimee K. Bryant, who has worked with McClinton several times before and is also in the Pillsbury House cast. "He is never onstage. He never gives you line readings. He never tells you what to think. He gives you suggestions and then he gets out of the way."
McClinton brings his touch to the new play by Marcus Gardley, who also wrote the road weeps, the well runs dry, which has also had a successful run at Pillsbury House.
The Gospel of Lovingkindness examines the cascading toll of violence. Set in Chicago, the story centers on two teenagers, Manny and Noel, who become forever connected over the theft of a pair of $260 Air Jordans.
Smallwood plays both characters. "Manny is a musical genius. Noel is a basketball player who is floating through life. Things don't come easily for him," he says. "The play is really about these sons and their mothers. I've brought in things not just from my teenage years and my relationship with my mother, but also my 17-year-old brother. The world is kind of different now than it was when I was 17. That's been interesting to think about."
Smallwood is joined onstage by a trio of local heavy hitters: Thomasina Petrus, James A. Williams, and Bryant.
"One of the beautiful things about the Twin Cities is that the actors have a genuine respect and love for one another. I admire every other person in the cast. We are already friends. It is already like family for a lot of us," Bryant says.
The play delves into hard-hitting territory about violence, murder, grief, and punishment. "This is a show where you get to care about the perpetrator. You are going to fall in love with both of the boys. I think it is important to find the humanity of people who do things we don't like and do things that are wrong. What happens to them if they come back into society? How do they get assimilated back into our culture?" Bryant says.
Gardley's play also offers a nuanced look at the issues. "There's a line in the play, 'Not everything is gang related.' Everybody is not just evil. Circumstances drive certain actions," Smallwood says.
And even with the darkness, the show does have light.
"There is a lot of heavy material, but there is also a lot of humor that kind of relieves the heaviness of it," Bryant says. "That's something that happens in the black community a lot. We laugh to keep from crying. There are always jokes at the funeral."
IF YOU GO:
The Gospel of Lovingkindness Friday through June 28 Pillsbury House Theatre 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis $25 (all tickets pick your price) For tickets and more information, call 612-825-0459 or visit online. pillsburyhousetheatre.org,