The night that I watched Surely Goodness and Mercy, I had the exciting opportunity to attend a talk-back with the playwright Chisa Hutchinson. She immediately came off as low key and artistic. Hutchinson recalled that the reason why she had written the show was to portray how religion could have a huge impact on one’s life. She had been raised going to church, but doesn’t remember much about the experience. What draws us to religion so strongly that we write about it, talk about it, and explore it in so many ways?
I walked into the Keen Company’s Harold Clurman Theater, a small and intimate space: perfect, I later realized, for the production directed by Jessi D. Hill. This little play does everything correctly, from the mood it sets before the show, to the lights that start off dim and then become brighter right before every scene.Within the intimate theater, I noticed that the stage itself told a story. The play’s furniture on stage was a window for the audience to look through. We began to speculate about the play’s content based on the set: a couch, a bed, a desk. My mind started piecing together an intricate story. Smooth music relaxed us and prepared us for this story of love and friendship.
The lights dim and we open on a woman sitting and watching television in 2019 Newark, New Jersey. The play runs over an hour and a half, but it feels like it goes by in an instant. The story follows young Tino (Jay Mazyck) and his friend Deja (Courtney Thomas) in their exploration of what it is to be a child. Tino struggles with his love for the bible at school and his abusive aunt at home. He befriends an old lunch lady named Bernadette (Brenda Pressley) and begins to help her with his extensive knowledge, research capabilities, and enormous heart. They connect and learn many things together. Hutchinson brings the characters to life with their personality traits. Tino is earnest as he shares his knowledge with others, frustrated when he is ignored, and desperate when he needs to leave home for his own safety. Bernadette has her rough edges but an enormous heart. She learns to accept help from Tino, and in return, discovers that he needs her help too.
The acting in this play was stunning. The actors disappeared into their roles and immersed the audience in the play itself: like the sassy attitude of Courtney Thomas’s Deja; the struggle that you feel from Pressley’s Bernadette; the rhythm that Cezar Williams keeps up all throughout his sermons; how convincing Sarita Covington is as Alneesa, Tino’s aunt; and how Mazyck finds a way to connect with all the kids through Tino, the oddball, kind, super-extra soul.
Once we’re invested in Surely Goodness and Mercy, it feels as if the story is just pulling us along. At times it makes you laugh out loud, at other times it makes you scrunch up into a ball and want to hide. The play makes a few unusual transitional choices, but they seemed consistent with the rest of the play: music would begin without warning while switching between scenes, and the play ended in an unorthodox way by leaving the audience to decide what happens. By the time the actors came out for curtain call, it was clear that the whole audience had been entranced by what they witnessed.
I left the play feeling as though I understood the world a little better. I recognized a little piece of Tino in all of us. A piece wanting to explore our passion without fearing we would be chastised for it. I also felt that I understood religion better. As an atheist, I have never felt any connection with God, or some greater being that watches over us. This play didn’t convert me, but it helped me understand why and how some people lean on religion. Surely Goodness and Mercy is a play that touches the heart and the mind.