Love’s Labor Lost
“Why would a person steal a pair of shoes,” a disconsolate mother moans, “when he already has his own?” The true-life tragedy of a black teen murdered for his newly purchased Air Jordans is the central incident in Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, a somewhat didactic but compelling drama given a riveting production by Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project.
Mary is a principled mother whose life is dedicated to creating the opportunity for her only child to have a better existence. She sings “You’re gonna have things I didn’t have.” That son, Manny, seeks the same status as many youths, the fanciest, most expensive athletic shoes of the moment, a want protested by his father whose cheap work boots have lasted for years. Sadly, that desire leads to his untimely death.
Noel is another young black man raised by a mother who missed her chance to escape the Chicago projects. Her quest in to ensure that Noel doesn’t suffer the same fate. He plays by the rules, but because he isn’t good with the books, he is relegated to dead end work with inadequate pay. When receiving his first check from Walmart, a pittance reduced by taxes and FICA, he petulantly wads it up and throws it at his boss. Sadly, that incident leads to his descent.
Through these characters, we see that being black, being poor, being poorly educated, being ghettoized are and have been conditions for failure in this country. Garvey invokes the ghost of Ida B. Wells, a black Chicago leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1800’s to represent the long struggle and its shortfall in bringing truly equal opportunity to African-Americans. She rallies followers to demand change that will make a difference.
Offsetting positive changes that have occurred since Wells’ time and the 150 years since the end of the Civil War are ominous developments. Lynchings of the past have been replaced by police killings, and putting guns in the hands of bad elements has triggered black-on-black violence and murder. Coincidental to Walmart’s paltry pay in this drama, Walmart just announced the closure of its Oakland store, a move attributed to the City of Oakland’s increasing the minimum wage in hopes that workers can receive a living wage. Regrettably, much of the personal dignity that the black community prided itself in in the past has been eroded by cynicism and fatalism that contributes to bad decisions and to holding the community back. Yet, as indicated by the title, a reference to Jesus Christ’s message, Garvey doesn’t paint only despair today or in the future.
The venue of the play is the intimate chapel of Oakland City Church with the audience against the long walls and the action in the middle. The production is accordingly spare. There are no sets, and sound is limited mostly to storms and a boom box song. Illumination is restricted to tens of candles and white lights from permanent ceiling installations, plus a few klieg-type lights on the floor, but this allows for considerable lighting effects. The beauty of this Michael Socrates Moran directed piece is that the production is really about the story and the acting.
That a young and small company like Ubuntu can attract such outstanding actors is a great tribute, but the honors go to the actors themselves who are exceptional. Only Dawn Troupe as Mary acts a single part, and she does so with understated grace and melancholy. Halili Knox absolutely pops in several roles including Noel’s mother. Though she plays somber moments well, her charisma sparkles in high energy segments. William Hartfield impresses playing both young men, showing his ability to play swagger and despair equally. Dorian Locket as Mary’s ex and others, imbues them all with great vigor, fervor and conviction. And Rolanda Dene makes well of her opportunity to play Ida B. Wells and is the finest voice among several in the occasional unaccompanied songs and ditties.
The power of the actors is unleashed in several high energy parts when they break the fourth wall and engage audience members with strong eye contact and even touch. One criticism of the production that may rest with the playwright or the direction or both is the confusion caused by players in multiple roles. Sometimes characters are not clearly identified in fast moving action. It is easier to absorb different characters when they are played by different actors, but special attention is required when they are not. But minor flaws aside, any person of goodwill will appreciate an evening with this script and this cast.
The Gospel of Lovingkindness is produced by Ubuntu Theater Project and plays at Oakland City Church, 2735 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, through January 31.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association