Grace, blessings, and charity can come from the most unlikely sources and individuals. This is the central premise of Chisa Hutchinson’s Surely Goodness and Mercy, in which a precocious 12-year-old boy and a cantankerous school lunch lady are a pair of unlikely saviors. Set in Newark, N.J., the play shows that amid the grit and grime of urban life, simple acts of benevolence can have reverberating and profound effects.
Tino (Jay Mazyck), an exceptionally intelligent sixth grader, lives with Alneesa (Sarita Covington), his abusive and angry aunt, who is unwillingly raising the child after the sudden death of his mother. Alone and bereft of human compassion, Tino seeks spiritual guidance and answers in the Bible, which he reads every chance he gets. One of the only adults who truly seems to show concern for the boy is Bernadette (an effervescent Brenda Pressley), the tough-talking lunch lady, who, while dishing out hot dogs and tater tots, directs Tino to Psalms, her favorite book in the Bible.
Fortunately, Tino finds a similarly damaged soul in a self-mutilating and wisecracking schoolmate, Deja (Courtney Thomas), and the two become fast friends and lunch buddies among a scourge of bullies. When the chums discover that Bernadette is suffering from a debilitating medical condition, they hatch a scheme to raise funds through social media for the lunch lady’s treatment. In the meantime, Bernadette is quietly working to save Tino from an adolescence filled with daily invective, exploitation, and vicious beatings by his aunt.
The production design by Lee Savage (scenery), Nicole Wee (costumes), and Devorah Kengmana (lighting) the evocatively captures the institutionally cold world of the play. The scenes move swiftly, traversing a number of locales, from home to school to hospital. Only excursions to the church offer Tino a comfortable place to tap into his feelings of isolation.
The plot contains myriad forms of human cruelty, but Hutchinson optimistically emphasizes the triumph of human decency. There are biblical references throughout and religious sermonizing, including two lengthy church orations delivered by an unseen preacher, and these underscore the play’s juxtaposition of secular humanism and Christian morality. In fact, the clunky title comes from a verse in the Book of Psalms: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me/ All the days of my life,/ And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23:6).
Surely Goodness and Mercy is nothing if not sincere and well-meaning, but the characters are drawn with such broad strokes, it is difficult to connect emotionally with them. Alneesa in particular is such a monstrous creation, she comes across as a clichéd evil stepmother. For instance, when the principal suspends Tino for correcting a teacher’s grammar usage, Alneesa indicates that she will aggressively deal with the child. She assures the principal, “I don’t know what got into him, but you better believe I’m gonna work it right outta him when we get home.” It is hard to believe that in 2019, the year the play is set, the school would not immediately call Child Protective Services. More problematically, many of the plot points strain credibility, especially as the play whirls to a hurried conclusion.
The casting choices do not help matters. Directed by Jessi D. Hill, the actors portraying the 12-year old students read considerably older and larger. (Mazyck’s program bio identifies the actor as 19, and Thomas holds an MFA, so she is presumably many years past 12 as well.) Luckily, the performers do not affect familiar actorly mannerisms of children, but the impact of seeing the events through the eyes of middle schoolers is diminished.
In his sermon the preacher summarizes the play’s message, stating, “The world is a better place when we all can recognize when we’re in a position to be a blessing.” Even audience members who do not identify as Christian would most likely agree that Surely Goodness and Mercy has an important message to impart. The vessel in which it is delivered, though, is not entirely commanding and persuasive.
The Keen Company’s production of Surely Goodness and Mercy plays through April 13 at the Clurman Theatre (410 West 42nd St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. There is an additional matinee on Wednesday, April 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $80 and can be purchased by calling Telecharge (212) 239-6200 or (800) 447-7400 or visiting www.keencompany.org.