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Highly Recommended
This production is
Jeff Recommended
Recommended-short list
Highly Recommended
Intimately detailed performances
It deserves an audience
the characters...are so lovable
visionary performance
Critic's Pick
intensely focused cast
powerful reminder of the potential for goodness within us all

By Lawrence B. Johnson, Chicago on the aisle

It’s a singular experience to sit through what is essentially a feel-good play, and to reach the end with the sense that you’ve actually seen a genuine drama. Such is the rare form and substance of Chisa Hutchinson’s “Surely Goodness and Mercy,” offered by a splendid cast in the ideal intimacy of Redtwist Theatre.

Tino is a very bright 12-year-old from a tough neighborhood where his mother was killed shielding him from gun fire. Now he lives with his aunt, a cold woman who never wanted children of her own and treats Tino harshly. But the boy possesses a curiosity about the world that matches his intellect, and so he dwells blithely on a plane beyond his circumstances.

In his new school, he encounters Deja, a sympathetic classmate who’s drawn to Tino’s decency and intelligence — and fascinated by his oddity. He always speaks in full sentences with correct syntax. He knows a great deal about a lot of things. Deja has never seen the like of him.

Tino also comes under the watchful eye of an elderly and prickly worker in the school cafeteria, Bernadette, who unbeknownst to anyone is suffering from the swiftly worsening effects of MS. These three lives are about to become entangled through Tino’s determined benefaction, which prevails against the hard countering forces embodied in the boy’s bitter aunt.

What raises Hutchinson’s play above the predictable treacle of happily-ever-after is the complexity of her characters, the authentic stresses at work on them and, above all, the combination of intellectual spark and adolescent vulnerability that define Tino. And it is Donovan Session’s charged, fearless, even visionary performance as Tino that drives Redtwist’s endearing production.

Sessions is more than convincing as a 12-year-old: Front to back, he’s wholly believable as an exceptional child who is at once brilliant and compassionate, unshakably sure of himself yet hardly self-absorbed.

In a pivotal and telling classroom moment, Tino gets into a heated argument with his teacher over subject-verb agreement in a sentence. The teacher has it wrong but insists that she is right. She’s been teaching for a long time, whereas this disputatious boy is 12 years old. Tino, who will not concede a point on which he knows he is right, explodes, repudiates the teacher and lands in the principal’s office. His outburst gets him a two-day suspension and draws the wrath of his aunt.

If the incident hints at Asperger syndrome, the stronger implication is that Tino is simply more clever than his teacher. His mind is as tireless as it is sharp, and he soon turns it to a project of compassion: to find help for the lady in the cafeteria (Renee Lockett in a vividly etched portrait of worldly wisdom and rising pain), whose symptoms, Tino discovers, look a lot like MS.

The kid isn’t Super Man. He doesn’t cure her. In fact, he soon runs out of ideas. That’s where his new pal Deja (the slyly charming Charlita Williams) steps up with a concept that’s all new to Tino: online project funding. But when the cash begins to roll in, the boy’s resentful and ill-tempered aunt (Katrina D. RiChard sharpening a nasty edge on a brutal role) sees a slice for herself. This time, Tino’s better angels only bring him grief.

To variable effect, “Surely Goodness and Mercy” employs the dramatic device of characters interacting with people we hear but cannot see: the school principal, Tino’s teacher, the church minister. While the school figures sounded like robots reading, the preacher – Wardell Julius Clark, who also directs the show – offered quite moving homilies on charity and personal character, with youngsters Tino and Deja as his attuned, receptive audience.

The play’s title, of course, derives from the psalm that reads: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The old lady in the cafeteria adores the psalms, and when she’s hospitalized, Tino reads them to her. He also elicits her ire when he gets to the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

But as the woman discovers, Tino is a bringer of life: It abides and flourishes in him. He leaves you thinking that youth is perhaps not, after all, wasted on the young.

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Progress of a Child Pilgrim

Picture This Post, reviewed by Jacob Davis

There’s a point in Surely Goodness and Mercy when a child is mistreated by a trio of ignorant, incompetent, sanctimonious, authoritarian adults in a manner that is infuriating precisely because it is so common place. There is hardly an audience member in the world who could not see themselves in the shoes of twelve-year-old Tino (Donovan Session) in that moment. However, there may not be as many audience members who respond to problems the way Tino does, which is what makes him fascinating. Now in the final production of its rolling world premiere at Redtwist Theatre, Chisa Hutchinson’s drama explores where people find grace and solace when life throws dirt in their faces. An ensemble of four actors in Redtwist’s tiny Edgewater space lead us through intense pain, humor, and joy in this slice-of-Newark-life.

A Boy Everyone Disregarded Steps Up
Tino lives with his aunt, Alneesa (Katrina D. RiChard), who is a piece of work. He never knew his father and his mother died shielding him from gunfire, for which the other kids view him as cowardly. Recently, Tino has started reading the Bible, which causes everyone to see him as even more weird. The closest thing he has to a friend is the elderly lunch lady, Bernadette (Renee Lockett). But after the girl who sits next to him has a stress-induced meltdown and he’s cool about it, she, Deja (Charli Williams), befriends him, too. He even stumbles across a liberal African-American Baptist church, where he feels at home and is wowed by the charismatic reverend’s sermon on making oneself a blessing to others.

Unfortunately, things get worse again as Bernadette’s health fails. Too poor for medical care, too scared to look for options, and too stubborn to ask for help, she rapidly falls apart. Tino appoints himself to be her advocate, a role he does better at than can be expected, but which naturally adds to his stress. It also sets him on a collision course with Alneesa, since he’s been using her resources, and she does not take that well at all.

Redtwist Theatre Becomes a Spiritual Trail
Director Wardell Julius Clark and set designer Lauren Nichols have created a separate space onstage for each location. There is a practical reason for this: Hutchinson is fond of short, silent scenes that exist to establish a mood and then allow the plot to start moving again. But it also makes the stage look like the stations of a medieval religious drama, as does the colloquial Gospel translation scrawled in massive letters across the wall and floor. In addition to directing his excellent live actors, Clark provides pre-recorded dialogue as the reverend. His performance makes clear why Tino feels so instantly loved and becomes committed to Christian community. The effect is reversed with Brianna Buckley and Julia Skeggs as the outrageous teacher and principal, who are all the more remote and sinister by being invisible.

Small Ensemble Provides Intimately Detailed Performances
The live actors maintain such a cohesive illusion it’s easy to forget that we are watching two adults play people much younger than themselves. (Although this reviewer would have bought fourteen more easily than twelve). Renee Lockett’s Bernadette is crotchety but a rock for her friends. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to watch her setting her alarm earlier and earlier as she struggles against the ravages of MS. Session and Williams as Tino and Deja are an adorable couple. Their banter is amusing and they inspire each other to be braver and more focused and personable as they mature. RiChard also exceeds in a difficult role. Alneesa is a detestable, bitter person, though Tino becomes uncomfortably aware that, to people who don’t know Bernadette, the short-tempered lunch lady comes across that way, too. The first half of Surely Goodness and Mercy has a slower pace than the second, and that’s so it can take its time establishing these characters. But once that’s done, we’re well-invested and can join them on their journey.

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Finding A Way Through: A Review of Surely Goodness and Mercy at Redtwist Theatre
Newcity Stage, Reviewed by Erin Shea Brady

Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown talks in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, about what it means to truly belong to ourselves, and the differences between belonging and fitting in. When Brown interviewed middle school students (a breeding ground for lack of belonging), one student piped up, revealing that while it’s really hard not to belong at school, it’s even harder not to belong at home, a sentiment that brought the rest of the class to tears.

When we don’t belong to our families, we seek that belonging elsewhere. Tino (played wholeheartedly by Donovan Session) is a curious kid with a photographic memory who roams the halls, nose buried in his bible. Although the kids make fun of him, he appears to be far more concerned with belonging—a deep, Maya Angelou “every place and no place” kind of belonging—than with simply fitting in. His bible becomes a guiding light that Tino comes to on his own, without the pressures and expectations of a religious community.

The bible so often becomes a springboard for abuse, hatred, and discrimination, a book that justifies an archaic practice of condemning those who are not like us. I don’t subscribe to it and rarely feel comfortable around those who do. But I love Tino’s God. I love the comfort that Tino’s faith brings him as he lets the pages fall where they may, guiding him forward into the unknown. I love the beautiful notion that God (or any entity you might believe in) is a master delegator, blessing each of us so that we can bless each other.

And that’s just what Tino does, with help from his new friend Deja (the endearing Charli Williams) and lunch lady Bernadette (a strong performance by Renee Lockett). For a lot of us, the lunchroom was a major source of middle school trauma. It makes so much beautiful, heartwarming sense that a lunch lady would take notice of a student who is struggling and that they would strike up a friendship.

“Surely Goodness and Mercy” won’t hit you over the head with comments about our polarized political climate. It’s not “about” politics, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply relevant. This turbulent time we are living in is painful for us grown-ups. It is so painful and so confusing that sometimes it feels impossible to put one foot in front of the other, to see the open hearts of the human beings who are standing right in front of us, equally confused and equally in pain. Sometimes those people are kids. Kids are smart. They listen. They are affected by the world around them. They are affected, in so many uplifting and soul-crushing ways, by the problems of grown-ups. We have to remember that. We have to honor that.

This is an imperfect production. Director Wardell Julius Clark guides this cast into some beautiful and grounded performances, yet also made a few choices that struck me as odd, purely from a logistical standpoint: the transitions are slow, the physical world-building is often unclear and generally affects the pacing, tension and clarity of the piece. But if you want heart, look no further. There is no denying its utter loveliness. It deserves an audience.

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Dueling Critics, Reviewed by Kelly Kleiman

Redtwist Theatre's Surely Goodness and Mercy is as romantic as Moon [for the Misbegotten at Writers Theatre], albeit in an entirely different way. This National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere (also being done this season in Utah and New Jersey), written by Chisa Hutchinson and directed by great tenderness by Wardell Julius Clark, follows uber-nerd Tino, a 12-year-old with an adult vocabulary, a serious interest in the Bible, and a home which fosters neither, as he is befriended by the school's lunch lady and a hip classmate. Because the characters (all but one) are so lovable, you fear at every turn that something terrible will happen; but I'm fully prepared to offer the spoiler that things work out, so you don't have to be as tormented as I was during the hard parts. Every member of the cast is perfectly suited to his/her role, with special kudos to Donovan Session and Charlita "Charli" Williams, two adult actors playing 6th graders with complete conviction and persuasiveness. Renee Lockett makes lunch lady Miss Bernadette crusty but warm-hearted without ever descending to cliche--you want her to be your grandmother--and Katrina D. RiChard pulls no punches in the unenviable role of Tino's thoroughly unpleasant aunt, without turning her into a caricature. There can perhaps be no more damning phrase in a critic's vocabulary than "heartwarming"--sophisticated people are ready to run screaming from the room when they hear it--but Surely Goodness and Mercy presents a believably positive spin on the troubles of the world. And couldn't we all use that just about now? Give this production to yourself for Valentine's Day--or the Ides of March--or on the occasion of its being Tuesday.

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Recommended-Short List
Chicago Reader, Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Raising a child indeed takes a village, as demonstrated in Chisa Hutchinson's satisfying, uplifting play about a grade school student's friendship with an ornery lunch lady. Neglected and abused at home by his adoptive aunt (Katrina D. RiChard), Tino (Donovan Session) takes refuge in his newfound Christian faith at church, his insatiable curiosity in the classroom, and his unlikely bonds with an extroverted wisecracking peer (Charlita "Charli" Williams) and an aging cafeteria manager with a looming medical crisis (Renee Lockett). Wardell Julius Clark's Redtwist Theatre production paints a pretty clear road map of its own plotting early on, but that doesn't make the journey any less gratifying or the climactic destinations any less emotionally punchy. Notably absent from Hutchinson's frank an sobering story: cynicism.

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atHighly Recommended ★★★★ out of 4 stars
Around the Town Chicago, Reviewed by Al Bresloff

One of my favorite “storefront” theaters is Redtwist, a PURE storefront on Bryn Mawr Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood. This intimate space allows the audience to become the perverbial “fly on the wall” almost feeling as if they can reach out and touch the actors. In fact, we could. Today, while witnessing a “rolling World Premiere” of “Surely Goodness and Mercy”, by Chisa Hutchinson, there were times I had to uncross my legs so that the actors could get off the “stage” (if you have ever been to Redtwist, you know there is no actual stage). They keep you on your toes for sure.

This play, directed by Wardell Julius Clark, who has done a masterful job of utilizing this small space. The story takes place in Newark, New Jersey. The area is one of low-income and the main character of our story, Tino (an incredible job by newcomer Donovan Session), a 12-year-old student, who resides with his aunt, is seeking his own identity. His mother has passed, his father is unknown to him, and his only living relative is his aunt, who is selfish and has no emotion for this special boy. He is brilliant, with a photographic (although they refer to is as photogenic) memory. He also, in searching for his identity, totes the Bible with him and reads it constantly, often dropping it, and where it opens, reading on.

At school, where he is picked on, teased and bullied, he befriends Deja (the very bubbly and adorable Charlita ”Charli” Williams). They become close and true friends. There is a ornery lady, the cafeteria lady who they befriend. Her name is Bernadette (deftly handled by Renee Lockett) who while she yells at all of the kids, has a sense of who is real and who matters. It is what takes place between these two pre-teens and this “old-maid” who find herself ill (we watch her symptoms of a disease come to be) and what happens after where we watch the two young people find themselves and their fates. There is even a part where Tino runs away from home, lives in hiding in the school and is found by Bernadette, who changes his life. He returns the favor later. I don’t like to give anything away, so I will only tell you that there are some alarming scenes involving Tino and his Aunt Alneesa (Katrina D. RiChard). Sitting as close to the action as we do in this space, I noticed a few audience members jump during some of these altercations. (The fight design by Almanya Narula was as real as it gets, from my vantage point.) Through all of the crap that life often hands us and despite the odds that the world presents to us, the young boy, his good friend and their new “old” friend can smile at the end of this story! Audience members, will do the same, but there is a portion where a tissue or two comes in handy.

The set (Lauren Nichols) is very multi-use. In fact, the bed is used for several scenes and plays an important role in the development of what is happening to Bernadette. The lighting (Daniel Friedman) and sound (Grover Hollway) work to keep the mood of the show moving and the costumes (Kotryna  Hilko) are just what might be expected. The props by Dana Macel are sheer perfection, but I wish non-smoker would not be asked to smoke the fake vapor cigarettes for no apparent reason. It is one of the “stereotypes” that one sees in plays about lower-income people. They all seem to smoke, despite cigarettes costing even more today than they should.

The story is one that will give your soul a boost and your heart a warm feeling.

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WCTRecommended, Critic's Pick
Reviewed by by Mary Shen Barnidge, Windy City Times

The publicity synopsis may read like a listing for the Hallmark Channel, but playgoers should not be hasty in dismissing Chisa Hutchinson's play as simplistic sentimentalism. The belief that optimistic endings are incompatible with intelligent arguments is only one of the popular misconceptions debunked by this prolific author.

Our story's hero is 12-year-old Tino, whose mother died, literally, taking a bullet for him—trauma remanding her orphaned son to the reluctant care of his ill-tempered Aunt Alneesa. The sensitive and gifted child finds solace in the Bible (which he reads "cover to cover, like a James Patterson novel" to the scorn of his surly guardian and derisive classmates). At school, his sole allies are self-mutilating fellow student Deja and gruff cafeteria server Bernadette.

Their tenuous alliance faces a series of crises when Bernadette is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Alneesa orders Tino to steal money raised for medical expenses. Far from meekly acquiescing to bad fortune, though, our trio of misfits discover in themselves hitherto-unrecognized courage, along with the audacity to pursue the resources necessary for each other's deliverance—in fact, not just in spirit—from ignorance and neglect.

Let's count the stereotypes refuted by Hutchinson's parable: first, it proposes a teenage male endowed with analytical and intuitive prowess—the latter trait attributed in our culture almost exclusively to girls. Second, it rejects assumptions regarding innate maternal impulses, with both Alneesa and Bernadette defending the wisdom of childlessness for those with neither the skills nor the inclination therefor. Hutchinson also poses a dramatic universe where teachers are often more concerned with classroom discipline than their educative duties, where the purpose of church gospels is NOT the manufacture of hypocritical bigots and where diseases are not invariably fatal.

The snapshot-montage structure of the play (currently making its Rolling World premiere under the auspices of the National New Play Network) renders it particularly well-suited to tiny performance spaces like that of Redtwist. Under the direction of Wardell Julius Clark, an intensely focused cast led by Renee Lockett and Donovan Session resist the temptation to coast on sitcom-cutesy caricature, instead delving their dialogue for grace notes lending warmth and intimacy to personalities too often ignored by adults of superficial values like us.

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A Young Boy’s Staggering Act of Love
Reviewed by Hallie Palladino, Rescripted.org

Chisa Hutchinson’s intimate four character drama Surely Goodness and Mercy at Redtwist Theatre takes on the difficult subject of child abuse and makes children its heroes. During a month when we are seeing young people in the news rising up to speak out against violence it’s inspiring to see the story of a young boy who is able to escape the violence in his own home while doing good for others.

The play, which is an NNPN rolling world premiere, is directed by Wardell Julius Clark who recently closed his hit production of Robert O’Hara’s epic comedy, Insurrection, at Stage Left. In contrast, Surely Goodness and Mercy is a quiet, more somber piece presented in Redtwist’s signature naturalistic style. The central question of the play is: how can we help one another?

The play is about Tino (Donovan Session) a young boy who has recently lost his mother who sacrificed herself to save his life. He is thrust into a dangerous situation with his cruel aunt (Katrina D. RiChard) but befriends his school lunch lady, Ms. Bernadette (Renee Lockett), who watches over him. Bernadette is suffering the early symptoms of MS, a fact she is trying to hide from Tino. But being an observant and caring child, he notices. Tino doesn’t fit in at school and is getting bullied by kids for being bookish and sounding “weird” as his classmate Deja (Charlita Williams) puts it. As the play progresses, Deja becomes Tino’s friend and ally. The play features several scenes where the two children are listening while the disembodied voices of unseen adults lecture them. This mirrors the power dynamic so often experienced by young people and gives us an opportunity to keep our eyes on the kids as they’re hearing the adults. When Tino dares to correct his English teacher over her grammar he finds himself on the wrong side of the school’s zero tolerance policy.

Luckily for Tino, he has a Bible and he knows how to use it. For inspiration, for moral guidance and to reaffirm the common sense truth that helping others is our duty and our privilege. This play is refreshing because so often when we see stories about religion on stage it is a less than flattering critique. But in this play Tino, who charmingly chooses a church community due to it’s good reviews on Yelp!, stumbles into an inspiring Baptist sermon about helping your neighbor and immediately turns word into deed with a staggering act of love.

To be reminded that children are capable of great things should put all of us adults to shame. Seeing a vulnerable child with everything to lose practice resilience without hardening or backing down is a fortifying message for anyone grappling with hopelessness. Watching Tino’s chosen community rally around two children on a mission is a powerful reminder of the potential for goodness within us all.
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