In her latest book, “Braving the Wilderness,” researcher and storyteller Brené Brown talks 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. (Erin Shea Brady)
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 West Bryn Mawr, (773)728-7529, redtwist.org, $35-$40.Through March 18.