Off Broadway Reviews
"Thanks for listening. It's half the battle for somebody like me," says Tino (Jay Mazyck), the world's weariest twelve-year-old, after asking strangers on the internet for help with a fundraising project. The line is a perfect example of playwright Chisa Hutchinson's economy, the way in which she deftly conveys intense emotions through straightforward dialogue, but also perfectly sums up the mission of her play Surely Goodness & Mercy, which opened at Theatre Row on March 13. Tino is the kind of character usually relegated to a featured or supporting role, the kind of person that only exists in fiction to help white people appease their guilt and pat themselves on the back when they become his savior. In Hutchinson's play though he is the star, and he will quietly sparkle until his light shines upon those who need it the most.
After Tino's mother died, he was left under the care of his aunt Alneesa (Sarita Covington), who doesn't really want him there. She's not a fairy tale "stepmother" figure, nor a monstrous Dickensian villain, she is simply a single woman who didn't want children and suddenly finds herself fulfilling an obligation out of duty. She often shows her contempt for the boy by questioning his decisions, poking fun at his love of the Bible, and physically abusing him. She only sees in Tino what society has told her she should see. He's her burden.
But Tino is bright, sweet, and kind beyond his years (or perhaps he's kind precisely because he's so young) and at school he forms an unlikely friendship with the cafeteria lady, Bernadette (Brenda Pressley) a no-nonsense woman who's dealt with enough kids to know she can't let them see her weaknesses. Around Tino however she appears vulnerable, she saves him his lunch and chocolate milk (even though that's the first kind of beverage to run out during lunch), and warns Tino's new friend Deja (a hilarious Courtney Thomas) to treat him well.
Before the play is over, Tino and Bernadette will have become entangled in an unwilling, but life-affirming, cycle of secret charity. The opposite of what we see in Hollywood films, like the recent Academy Award Best Picture winner Green Book, which thrive in the idea that black people are in desperate need of being rescued by white saviors, who are then celebrated in simplistic tales with facile resolutions.
Those movies seem to understand that kindness is essential, but they fail in an execution that relies completely on reducing African American men and women to helpless beings who wouldn't be able to find their way in the world without their assistance. What those films never explore is the crushing environment of oppression that leads to inequality. As we see the likes of Viggo Mortensen and Sandra Bullock "fix racism" by taking African American characters under their wings, we are denied the opportunity to see that these stories themselves are racism, the epitome of white privilege.
Hutchinson is too clever a writer to overexplain or point out the obvious, merely by setting her play in a Newark school with an overpopulation of African American and underprivileged students, she's saying so much about the way in which the educational system in America is rigged to perpetuate a form of segregation. Similarly, Tino doesn't "suffer with dignity," because who does? Hutchinson shows us that all kinds of abuse are by default a violent removal of human dignity. When Alneesa beats her nephew, we don't see him gulp and quietly take the blows, we acknowledge his pain because we're witnessing it.
The casting of the sensitive, 19-year-old Mazyck as 12-year-old Tino also serves as commentary on the way in which black men are forced to grow up faster than their white counterparts. Tino has no time to play and be a child when he's so preoccupied with survival. Tino constantly reminded me of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was brutally murdered by 26-year-old police officer Timothy Loehmann after wielding a toy gun he was playing with. When a little boy isn't even given the opportunity to play, without seeming like a threat, how can we say he was ever a child?
And yet along with its pointed sociopolitical commentary, Hutchinson has also crafted a play that hits the right emotional cords. It's impossible not to be moved by Surely Goodness & Mercy, and not because it's giving us the comfortable, unchallenging entertainment Hollywood wishes we'd consume, but because it's carving space for those who have remained voiceless, not because they don't have a voice, but because we haven't cared to listen.
Surely Goodness and Mercy