It took playwright Marcus Gardley three tries before he was finally able to write “The Gospel of Lovingkindness,” his heralded 2014 one-act that opens Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. On the first two tries, the subject matter proved too sensitively close to home.
“Lovingkindness,” which takes its title from faith traditions, orbits the effects of gun violence on the families of perpetrator and victim. The drama, suffused with lightness despite its sobering theme, asks us to see the sympathetic humanity of both families, even as the effects of violence bind them.
Gardley first approached the subject after a family tragedy. In the spring of 2008, his cousin, Deandre Sellers, then 29, was shot multiple times in Oakland, Calif.
The two grew up next to each other in the Bay Area, with both coming from solid families — Gardley’s parents are a minister and a nurse; Sellers also had familial support. But Gardley became a celebrated playwright, and Sellers, who left behind two young children, became a drug dealer. He died outside a supplier’s house.
At the funeral, fellow dealers and people in that life showed up to pay their respects, and to pour offertory libations on the sidewalk in his name. Gardley and his family scoffed at the gesture. The playwright chose a different life path, and a different way to deal with his grief.
“I started to write about it, because writing is therapeutic,” Gardley said by phone from a retreat in Marin, Calif. “But it was too painful. Deandre was like my brother. And it’s hard for me to write about myself.”
As he struggled with his craft and the loss, another local event reopened his wounds. In January 2009, a young father named Oscar Grant III was killed by a transit police officer at a train station in Oakland. That shooting, captured on cellphone videos and memorialized in the award-winning film “Fruitvale Station,” left Gardley even more pained.
“That’s my station, the stop for my parents’ house,” he said. “Oscar lived on my street. I tried to write about it again, but kept coming upon these emotional blocks. Oftentimes, great playwriting requires distance. I knew I had to find the space to deal with all these emotions.”
Echoes of violence in Chicago
He got that chance when he won a prestigious playwriting residency at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, led by Chay Yew. But with Chicago in the grip of its own killing epidemic, he couldn’t escape the headlines of home. When 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was shot to death in January 2013, just over a week after performing in a group at President Obama’s second inauguration, Gardley knew that he had to do something.
“I didn’t just want to write a play that was like an after-school special — the kind where you see it and think it’s all hopeless, that there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “I wanted to write something to help spark discussions between parents or guardians and young people. Maybe some young person will see this and make a different life choice. There’s a line in the play where the killer says, ‘I hope what I’ve done saves a life.’ ”
The subject matter is heavy, no doubt, but Gardley is keen to draw people to the theater, and hopes to succeed in that goal by his use of humor. The play is full of levity, he noted, especially in the eulogy that the mother has to give for a son who loved peach cobbler.
In “Lovingkindness,” the perpetrator and the victim are played by the same actor, Namir Smallwood.
“This is a different kind of play for Marcus,” said director Marion McClinton, who also helmed Gardley’s “The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry” in fall 2013 at Pillsbury House. “It’s not as poetic or epic as his other plays. The people in the play are our conduits into a situation that may be numbing to a bunch of folks. Even the killers are likable.”
‘A matrix of answers’
The overarching question, and one the play shares with the Black Lives Matter movement, is: How did we get to a place where young men and women, especially black ones, can have their lives snuffed out so easily? Another important question raised by the play: What do we do about it now?
Gardley eschews the role of civic leader — a pitfall for many black artists called on to be spokespeople. But he has partial answers to both questions.
“We keep looking for the one solution, but it’s a complicated problem and it needs to have a matrix of answers,” he said. “For some kids like me, the Boys and Girls Clubs are essential. I spent a lot of time there and read a great deal. They had a great library.”
He noted that for other young people, sports leagues and athletic activities are a draw. He champions mentorship programs such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. He advocates gun control legislation. He also thinks that people who live in wealthy enclaves should care more deeply about the less fortunate, and figure out ways to connect with them.
“One of the lines in the play is the victim’s mother saying that she felt like she lived in the good part of the city,” said Gardley. “The truth is bullets don’t obey borders. We are all touched by whatever happens to each other.”
Gardley harks back to the faith traditions that reference his play’s title, including the Bible. Psalm 51 reads: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.”
“It’s a meditation, a belief that we’re all connected through an energy and that everyone is due a certain amount of lovingkindness, just because we’re human,” he said. “It’s very hard to live that out in the day to day, but it’s worth a try.”