Grace, blessings, and charity can come from the most unlikely sources and individuals. This is the central premise of Chia 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.
Carolyn (Lizan Mitchell) is a cranky old woman waiting for death. She asks her hospice nurse, Veronika (Nikki E. Walker), to help grant her last dying wish—to be killed before the day is over. As an outspoken and devout Christian, Veronika does not take this request lightly. In search of redemption, this duo reflects on their own identities and past experiences to determine whether suicide is the right decision or whether life should be treated as a gift.
Housed in Harlem's iconic National Black Theatre, Dead and Breathing is a forward-thinking play that challenges us to look at our own lives in order to understand the societal restrictions that exist in our community. It also challenges the audience to ask themselves to what length will it take for someone to change their views. Written by the young and talented GLAAD Media Award winner Chisa Hutchinson, this play captures the ideas that the policing of black bodies goes beyond physical violence and includes the restrictions in our lives that are created by the preconceived perceptions that society creates and upholds. It is these perceptions that shape our own identities and communities.
Before the audience enters the theater, an exhibit is displayed in the lobby to help the audience understand the mindset of the show. The display poses the question: "How does language create a matrix?" This question is asked in hopes to help understand how the way of life can either liberate or restrict your mind. Once in the theater, the audience sits on lavish red seats that match the ambiance of Carolyn’s home. The set is beautifully displayed with golden frames hanging on the back wall, red carpeting throughout the room, a stain glass window in the bathroom and a large bath tub with golden feet. Even Carolyn’s costume also ties seamlessly with the set, revealing her upscale and rich taste.
It is clear why Mitchell received the Helen Hayes Award for Best Actress. Her effortless enactment of Carolyn’s crude and blunt characteristics come across extremely well especially when delivering her exceptionally timed dry and sarcastic jokes. She has you continually laughing and sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to hear what she reveals about her past in hopes of convincing Veronika to help her die with dignity. Walker is the leading force that pushes the play forward. With her character constantly questioning and demanding answers, Walker effortlessly maintains the pace of the play and moves the story line towards an unpredictable ending. Together, this duo successfully creates a show that is extremely funny and entertaining.
Under the brilliant direction of Obie winner Jonathan McCrory, the scenic design (Maruti Evans), lighting design (Alan Edwards), costume design (Karen Perry) and sound design (Justin Hicks) effortlessly transports the audience into Carolyn’s extravagant home. Dead and Breathing proves that discussing very serious issues doesn’t have to be done with a serious face. With characters we rarely see on stage, this play gives a breath of fresh air on issues that need to be addressed within a comedy that allows us to humanize and connect with the characters. If for no other reason, people should see this show to experience a spiritual liberation that opens their eyes to the way they view their own lives in order to spark change.
Dead and Breathing runs until Nov. 23 at the National Black Theatre (2031-33 National Black Theatre Way at the corner of 125 St. and Fifth Ave.) in Harlem. Performances are Monday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. The shows contain nudity. Tickets are $30. To purchase tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit www.nationalblacktheatre.org.