April 7, 2021

Students Befriend a Cafeteria Worker in “Surely Goodness and Mercy”; Passage Presents Chisa Hutchinson’s Inspirational Coming-of-Age Drama

“SURELY GOODNESS AND MERCY”: Passage Theatre has presented an online production of “Surely Goodness and Mercy.” Written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by marcus d. harvey, the play depicts Tino (above, left) and a classmate, who try to help an irascible but caring school cafeteria worker. (Painting by Leon Rainbow, courtesy of Passage Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre has presented Surely Goodness and Mercy. Playwright Chisa Hutchinson’s inspirational coming-of-age drama follows Tino, an intelligent and caring 12-year-old boy. Tino and a classmate form an unlikely friendship with a school cafeteria worker, and seek a way to help her out of a crisis.

This online production was presented March 25-28; the run was extended for a second week (April 1-4). Surely Goodness and Mercy has been part of Passage’s Theatre for Families and Young Audiences series — which, according to the company’s website, is “geared towards students in elementary or middle school and focus on themes that affect the youth in our area.”

Hutchinson’s play is uplifting, but it also is grittily realistic. Set in Newark, Surely Goodness and Mercy attacks poverty (specifically the inability to afford health care), racism, and child abuse. Hutchinson also explores faith and its ability to empower people to change situations.

Tino (serenely portrayed by Layton E. Dickson) lives with his embittered aunt, Alneesa (played by Tamara Anderson, whose performance is characterized by bored, haughty glares and barbed line readings). When Tino tries to engage Alneesa in conversation, she pointedly fast-forwards through a commercial to avoid him.

Alneesa approves of Tino’s classmates teasing him for reading the Bible at school. She also rants about his generation when she learns that he discovered his church via Yelp. She tasks him with dusting, before abruptly reassigning him to scrubbing the bathtub. Later we learn that Tino’s mother died to save him from a gunshot. Alneesa’s resentment stems from the fact that she did not want children, but has been tasked with raising her late sister’s child.

Tino is a recognizable variation of a literary archetype: the abused orphan. Examples include Oliver Twist, Little Orphan Annie, Harry Potter, and even Cinderella. Each of these characters begins their story in an unloving home. The assignment of menial tasks often is an expression of the guardians’ disdain.

Tino gets along better with the “lunch lady” at his school, the irascible but protective Bernadette (Jennifer Fouché). Bernadette spends much of her time exasperatedly scolding students for their unsavory behavior in the cafeteria. However, when she discovers that Tino does not like to eat hot dogs, she gives him a peanut butter sandwich instead. She also reveals a liking for the book of Psalms (the play’s title is derived from Psalm 23:6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…”).

Bernadette’s arm shakes, and she accidentally spills Tino’s lunch tray, whose contents he blithely eats anyway. We also see her struggle to turn off her alarm clock. Tino notices that her shakiness does not improve; so does his classmate, Deja (portrayed by Camiel Warren-Taylor, with the right mixture of brashness and affection). After Bernadette’s condition worsens to the extent that she ends up in the hospital with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Tino visits her and researches a list of neurologists, though she protests that she cannot afford to see one.

Tino’s other positive adult role model is the preacher at his church (infused with passionate, genial folksiness by Jamil A.C. Mangan). The first sermon Tino hears is about the importance of charity, and complementing faith with actions. The second sermon, delivered at a service Tino attends with Deja, is about (the problem with) judging others.

The preacher reveals his mother died (of cancer) when he was 16. At her funeral a mourner expressed condolences, but then insinuated that the preacher’s behavior must have caused his mother stress, worsening her condition. He angrily tried to throw his Bible in the trash, but missed — accidentally opening it to 1 John 4: ““Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”

Whether or not audience members hold Christian beliefs, the quote is integral to the play’s narrative and themes. It can be restated to mean, “Test the mentors, and assess whether or not there is validity in their teaching.”

The direction by marcus d. harvey underlines this theme, as does the acting by Dickson and Warren-Taylor. Significantly, the preacher is not onscreen by himself. Tino and Deja appear on either side of him, and their reactions to his sermon serve the scene’s dramatic purpose. Both of the young actors already are skillful, particularly in the subtle use of facial expressions. The sermon inspires both of their characters; the way they look at each other makes clear that the experience has deepened their friendship.

This will be juxtaposed against a later scene, in which Tino is faced with an unsympathetic English teacher (portrayed by Anderson in an apt dual role). The teacher (who is not even onscreen) criticizes Tino’s answer to a question on a grammar worksheet, even though — as he points out — she is factually incorrect. Like Alneesa, the teacher complains about Tino’s generation. As she drones on, Dickson’s annoyed body language is in sharp contrast to the scenes involving the preacher.

During the conflict with the teacher, Tino uncharacteristically expresses irritation. This places him in violation of the school’s zero-tolerance policy about “disrespecting teachers,” and the principal (Mangan, in another dual role) regretfully suspends him for two days. This worsens his relationship with Alneesa. When he visits Bernadette in the hospital, she is horrified to see his bloody lip, and to learn about the reason for it. (She reveals that she had an abusive mother, and has a scar to prove it.)

Later, Deja suggests a solution to Bernadette’s financial problems: a GoFundMe page. This causes a final conflict with Alneesa, who tries to shame Tino into giving her a percentage of the money.

What is satisfying about the play’s exploration of faith is the extent to which we see it motivate Tino’s actions (which inspire other characters). When he announces the fundraising campaign in church, his remarks touch on both of the sermons he has heard. In the course of asking the other parishioners to help financially, he decries unfair judgment and labels, noting people’s inclination to dismiss Bernadette as “the lunch lady.”

The scene summarizes Tino’s growth as a character. In the first act we see him listening to the preacher; now, he addresses the congregation. It is a genuinely surprising, but natural, evolution. Driven by the mission he has undertaken, he has come of age. After Bernadette leaves the hospital, she and Deja discuss Tino’s home situation. Bernadette repays his research on her behalf with some of her own, in an attempt to give him a brighter future.

A hybrid filming process was employed by the production. Certain scenes were filmed remotely. The remaining segments were filmed in person at Trenton Central High School (following COVID-19 precautions). Costume and scenic designer An-lin Dauber and virtual scene editor Brishen Miller inventively fashioned the backgrounds for the remote segments into an apt imitation of illustrations for a children’s book; this contrasts with the realism of the school scenes.

This dual approach results in an inconsistent visual aesthetic, but it is refreshing to see actors perform in person. Tino is an avid reader, so it is germane to suggest that his mind might reconfigure some locations into drawings he has seen in books.

What good is it … if someone says he has faith, but he does not have works?” quotes the preacher. Aided by a talented cast and harvey’s thoughtful direction, Hutchinson’s script — which underlines the importance of good mentors — reminds us that works of theater can have invaluable lessons to teach, while nourishing the spirit.

For information about Passage Theatre’s upcoming events, visit passagetheatre.org.