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Why Chisa Hutchinson felt compelled to write a drama filled with joy
Both in the news and on stage, stories about the African-American experience can be grim and disturbing -- hardly surprising, given our nation's history. In the post-Obama era, many of the most lauded plays by black writers have featured a decidedly bleak perspective. African-American dramatist Chisa Hutchinson completely gets it. "We're kind of in a cynical place, particularly in the last couple of years," she says, "I think it's very easy to just focus on all the things that can bring you down. I do it, too!"
That's why for her latest play, Surely Goodness and Mercy, which is having its New York premiere courtesy of Keen Company, Hutchinson decided to buck that trend. Directed by Jessi D. Hill, the moving drama centers on the relationship between two lonely characters at opposite ends of the journey of life. Tino (Jay Mazyck) is just 12 years old but has already endured more trauma than many people do in a lifetime; Bernadette (Brenda Pressley) is a senior citizen who, instead of enjoying retirement, is working in the cafeteria at Tino's underfunded public school. They have no idea how to solve their own problems, but they prove adept at helping one another.
"Don't get me wrong now, I've definitely written those other plays, but this is supposed to be an antidote to those dark forces that present themselves in our work and in our world," Hutchinson says. "Just a reminder: We have some agency. We may not be able to control everything, but we can do little things for ourselves and for each other. We don't have to be elected president to make a change, or to make a positive difference in someone's life."
Elements of Hutchinson's own background are easy to spot throughout Surely Goodness and Mercy. Like Tino, she grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and like Bernadette, she's had to cope with a daunting medical diagnosis -- Hutchinson has multiple sclerosis, a chronic autoimmune condition. She's also found herself in the position of Alneesa (Sarita Covington), Tino's aunt, unexpectedly raising a relative's child, plus she was brought up by a family friend.
It's not all autobiographical. Unlike Tino, Hutchinson wasn't very enthusiastic about the Bible and Sunday church services as an adolescent. "I didn't have such a great experience with religion growing up," the dramatist admits. But, in keeping with the theme of finding hope in dark places, she's imagined a church community that provides for Tino. "I wrote the preacher that I wish I'd had," she says. "I don't think it's enough to just criticize something and stop at that; you have to offer an alternative."
Despite the tale's uplifting nature, Hutchinson doesn't shy away from the peril of Tino's and Bernadette's respective situations. Both have to deal with physical and psychological threats. Still, one of the play's most nail-biting scenes involves the studious Tino trying to explain to his English teacher why the answer she marked wrong on his assignment is actually right. "When I was writing it, I was thinking: Oh Lord, this is so boring -- this is just for me and people who are into grammar!" Hutchinson says with a laugh. "But people really catch feelings about that part, which cracks me up." Indeed, there is a good deal of gentle humor throughout Surely Goodness and Mercy, particularly in Tino's interactions with Deja, a classmate whose prickly exterior masks an underlying sweetness.
Hutchinson's rich body of work has taken her to lots of different fictional places, some more realistic than others. But she returns consistently to the challenging city that helped shape her. "I like writing about Newark -- it's rich in narrative," she says. And while those stories are frequently heartbreaking, they can also be inspiring. "I think there are more Tinos than we know in places like Newark, or Detroit, or the South Side of Chicago, or Compton," she says. "This production is definitely reminding me to keep focusing on the light and to not let the world steal my joy, you know? There are so many joy snatchers in the world right now."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Courtney Thomas, Brenda Pressley and Jay Mazyck in Surely Goodness and Mercy. Photos by Carol Rosegg.