Chisa Hutchinson’s play, presented by Keen Company and set in Newark, N.J., proceeds as a series of loosely strung vignettes, but gradually the African-American character portraits fall into place and add up to an uplifting story reflected in the Biblical title. One comes away with fond feeling for the lad at the center of it all.
Jay Mazyck is very likable playing Tino, a 12-year-old very bright African-American student in a public school who lives with his Aunt Alneesa (Sarita Covington), who resents just about everything he does. She particularly resents the burden of having to care for Tino as a result of his mother’s death.
Alneesa supports the school principal’s decision to briefly suspend Tino for talking back in disagreement with a teacher. Actually, Tino was right in correcting a teacher’s grammatical error, causing the teacher to become infuriated. (We only hear the voice of the teacher (provided by Courtney Thomas) and that of the principal (Cezar Williams).
Tino builds a friendship with the plain-talking student Deja, played with sassy charm by Courtney Thomas. Tino enjoys reading his copy of the Bible. He and Deja go to church together, and she is impressed with his knowledge. They communicate warmly as they get to know each other better in conversations they have while eating together at school.
What ultimately raises the level of the play is the care Tino gives to Bernadette (Brenda Pressley), who serves meals to the youngsters. When she falls ill, Tino visits her in the hospital, and to gain permission he pretends that she is his grandmother. Convinced that she needs to see a neurologist and since she has no insurance, Tino, with the help of Deja, begins to raise money via the internet and personal solicitations on the street. A very sizable sum is collected, and when Tino’s aunt finds out, she wants him to fork over the money to her. Tino refuses. His aunt beats him and he leaves home, proceeding to bed down secretly in the school. Bernadette comes to his rescue.
There is a lovely, subtle end to the play when Bernadette is told that there is a letter awaiting her in the principal’s office. She does not yet know that it will contain money for her medical care, all thanks to the good-hearted Tino and Deja.
(An aside: Tino’s hassle with the teacher who refuses to admit an error reminded me of an incident at my New Jersey school when a classmate (my cousin) doubted the teacher’s assertion of the number trees that had to be cut down to produce one issue of the New York Times. Enterprisingly, he wrote to the Times, and when he received the correct figure, he presented it in class. Instead of the teacher thanking him for his scholarship, she angrily ordered him out of the room. Remembering the episode, I felt a special bravo for Tino--and for playwright Hutchinson.)
“Surely Goodness and Mercy” was directed with clarity and empathy by Jessi D. Hill, and Lee Savage contributed a multi- tier set design that works efficiently. At the Clurman, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed March 16, 2019.