In the opening minutes of Pillsbury House Theatre's The Gospel of Lovingkindness, we meet Manny, a delightful, bright, and talented young man living on the south side of Chicago. He has just returned from singing at the White House and, best of all, he has a brand-new pair of Air Jordans to replace the decidedly uncool Keds he had been wearing.
Marcus Gardley's play doesn't keep the good vibe going for long. Manny gets shot and killed for his shoes. We discover that these early scenes are all in the mind of his grieving mother, Mary, who will spend the show trying to deal with the grief and anger caused by the shooting.
See also: Pillsbury House Explores Violence and its Consequences in The Gospel of Lovingkindness
Meanwhile, another single mother and son, Miriam and Noel, are struggling to stay afloat. Noel is the triggerman, and Gardley follows his path from hardworking but not talented basketball player to murderer while tracing Mary's increased activism to stop the violence marring the streets of her neighborhood.
Pillsbury House Theatre provides a measured, often insightful production of Gardley's play, as a quartet of actors try to bring not just their characters, but the very soul of Chicago, to life.
A lot of the hard work is done by Thomasina Petrus as Mary and Aimee K. Bryant as Miriam. Petrus works between anger and controlled grief that only gets unleashed near the end, when Noel anonymously returns the shoes to the shocked mother. Bryant not only inhabits Miriam, but also gets to play the spirit of Ida B. Wells, the 19th-century African American civil rights activist who offers ghostly support to Mary.
Namir Smallwood plays both sides of the tragedy, as he is cast as both Manny and Noel. He makes the pair into distinct, breathing characters. Noel's flaws are deep, but he is trying to do the right thing for his family and his young child. Smallwood brings out Noel's impatience and anger, giving us a clear path from the court through a stint at Walmart, and onto the streets.
James A. Williams also plays contrasting roles. As Manny's father, Joe, he provides a bedrock of support for Mary, even if her zeal for justice short-circuits any real renewal of their relationship. This cuts against Noel's "father" figure, his uncle Baptiste. He is involved in a street gang, and he seems mainly interested in using the desperate Noel as a foot soldier.
The Gospel of Lovingkindness is best when it delves into the souls of the characters. A chunk of the play is steeped so deeply in Chicago life and politics that it can be hard to relate to without a solid knowledge of the city. Gardley doesn't offer much of a roadmap for those outside of the city's borders.
IF YOU GO:
The Gospel of Lovingkindness 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.