‘Gospel of Lovingkindness’ at Pillsbury House; 4 chosen to create public art for Nicollet Mall

Photo by Rich Ryan
Aimee K. Bryant and Thomasina Petrus in a scene from “The Gospel of Lovingkindness.”

Marcus Gardley’s play “The Gospel of Lovingkindness” is painful to watch. It’s an all too common story of black lives cut short by gun violence, something we’re almost inured to seeing in the news, but Gardley won’t let us look away. Based on actual events that took place on Chicago’s South Side in the 1990s, interviews he conducted there in 2013-14 and his own experiences growing up in Oakland, California, it forces us to face the searing emotional consequences of the senseless deaths that happen every day.

The play also makes us laugh, not in desperation or for relief but because some parts are genuinely funny. And it rewards close listening with gorgeous language. Gardley is both a poet and a playwright. In one scene, a character’s response to a four-piece chicken dinner and homemade peach cobbler is an ode to everything delicious.

In the Pillsbury House Theatre production expertly directed by Marion McClinton, four actors take on 14 roles, assuming each with such ease and grace that you forget the cast is so small. At times, characters address the audience directly, as if we’re part of the play. (Which makes the already intimate theater seem even more so.) Namir Smallwood is Emmanuel (“Manny”), a teenager who has sung at the White House, attends a mostly white school, has two loving parents (although they’re not together) and seems destined for a bright future. Smallwood is also Noel, a young man struggling to find his way and to be seen as a human being, telling a prospective employer, “The whole world is afraid of me and they don’t even know me.”

Thomasina Petrus and Aimee K. Bryant are their mothers, Mary and Miriam (by now you’ve noticed the deliberately biblical names). Petrus is the only member of the cast who plays just one role, the most wrenching and demanding. If she doesn’t bring you to tears at least once, you have no heart. James A. Williams takes on parts as disparate as Manny’s father, Noel’s gangbanger uncle and an HR guy at Walmart.

There’s a bit of magical realism in the person of Ida B. Wells (played by Bryant), an African-American journalist, suffragist and civil-rights leader who died in Chicago in 1931 yet has a conversation with Mary that spurs her to action. (Wells tells Mary matter-of-factly, “I’m 152.”) Wells also serves to remind us, if we need reminding, that killing black men is nothing new, comparing modern-day gun violence to lynching.

Gardley, whose own cousin was murdered, hasn’t given up hope that we will one day find a way out of racism and away from violence. This is the gospel he wants to convey, and here’s where the play becomes less sure-footed. Yet we want to believe he’s right, because if he isn’t, we are truly screwed. So if “Gospel” doesn’t end as strongly as it began, it ends the way Gardley intended, like a candle burning in a window.

“The Gospel of Lovingkindness” runs Wednesdays-Sundays at Pillsbury House Theatre through June 28. 7:30 Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($25 or pick your price).

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The $50 million plan for the Nicollet Mall redo includes $1 million for public art. In February, the City of Minneapolis sent out a national request for proposals and received 217 applications for four commissions: creating a “large-scale iconic artwork” ($500,000); designing a key feature, such as the theater in the round proposed for the area in front of the library ($225,000); leading a team of local and emerging artists to create a series of small integrated works ($200,000); and curating/integrating all public art into the overall mall design ($75,000).

A nine-member Public Art Committee shortlisted and interviewed 11 finalists and chose four artists. Ned Kahn of California will create the large-scale iconic artwork. Tristan Al-Haddad of Georgia will take on the key feature, Blessing Hancock of Arizona will be responsible for a series of suspended lanterns, and St. Paul artist and landscape architect Regina Flanagan will work with the design team to bring public art into the design.

Target Field Wind Veil by Ned Kahn
MG McGrath
Target Field Wind Veil by Ned Kahn

The only Minnesotan among the four, Flanagan may have the toughest job. Her responsibilities include creating community engagement, public education and interpretive program plans. Also, she’s the one who’ll decide what to do with the Three Bird Fountain on 9th St. and the Sculpture Clock on Peavey Plaza., among other existing works of public art that will carry over to the new mall.

Like Mary Tyler Moore’s tam-o-shanter, the fate of the bronze statue of the TV character is up in the air. Privately owned, it generated flak when it was installed in the early aughts. (“Maybe all this shouldn’t be surprising in a state governed by a former pro wrestler,” the Wall Street Journal sniped at the time. Not that we didn’t deserve it.)

Who’s bothered by the fact that only one of the four artists named to share the $1 million is local? Don’t be. It’s common for national, even international calls to go out when big commissions are at stake. Chicago’s beloved “Bean” in Millennium Park was designed by Bombay-born British artist Anish Kapoor. (Its real name is “Cloud Gate,” but nobody cares.) Our own “Spoonbridge and Cherry” was designed by Stockholm-born New Yorker Claes Oldenburg and his Dutch-born wife, Coosje van Bruggen. “Eros,” the colossal bronze head outside the Minneapolis Institute’s main entrance, was sculpted by Igor Mitoraj, who was born in Poland, lived in France and worked in Italy.

A 2003 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, Kahn is an environmental artist and sculptor whose work is inspired by wind, water and fire. This won’t be his first major commission for Minneapolis. He designed the giant moving metal “wind veil” on the plaza of Target Field. What will he do for the mall? Something that draws people like a magnet, we hope. Something as amazing, fun and engaging as the Bean. Or better. We’ll see in spring 2017.

The picks

Tuesday (June 9) at the Loft: Nodin Press Publication Reading. With St. Paul poet Greg Watson, three-time Minnesota Book Award winner Bart Sutter and Minnesota transplant Michael Kiesow Moore. 7 p.m. Founded in 1967 by Norton Stillman, Nodin has published more than 200 books of mostly regional interest.  

Tuesday at Bryant-Lake Bowl: Two Chairs Telling: Big Fish Edition. Before going on summer break, BLB’s popular storytelling series puts two “big fish” on stage: Kevin Kling and Laura Simms, author of “Our Secret Territory: The Essence of Storytelling.” Doors at 6 p.m., show at 7. FMI and tickets ($8-$12 sliding scale).

Wednesday at the American Craft Council: ACC Library Salon Series: Building Community with Urban Boatbuilders. The American Craft Council, a 72-year-old national nonprofit, is based in Minneapolis, with offices in the historic Grain Belt Brewhouse in Northeast. Its Library Salon Series invites the public to conversations about craft, making and art. The topic this time is Urban Boatbuilders, a St. Paul-based organization that teaches teens at risk to make and use boats, an ancient craft that strengthens character and builds academic, life and work skills. Who knew? Doors at 6:30 p.m., event at 7. Free. The ACC Library is on the second floor.

Urban Boatbuilders
Courtesy of Urban Boatbuilders
Urban Boatbuilders

Thursday at Dreamland Arts: “push/bend/pull.” Spitting Image, a new composer collective formed in 2013, presents an evening of new works commissioned from five Twin Cities composers: Scott Miller, Joey Crane, Daniel Nass, Ted Moore and Katherine Bergman. The performers are James DeVolle (flute), Jeffery Kyle Hutchins (saxophone), Erik Blanco (violin), Carlynn Savot (cello) and Jeremy Johnston (percussion). 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/$10).

Thursday and Sunday on your teevee: “Poustinia: The Art of Gendron Jensen.” We previewed this documentary film by Minnesota native Kristian Berg in May, right before it screened during Art-A-Whirl. With a little distance, it seems even more romantic and delicately beautiful. Thursday at 9:30 p.m., Friday at 3:30 a.m., Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on TPT 2.

The weekend

Friday-Sunday at Intermedia Arts: Pangea World Theater presents “No Expiration Date: Sexuality & Aging.” The mere hint of old people (i.e., anyone over 40) having sex is enough to make anyone under 40 go ewwww. It’s not something we talk about, and a healthy sexual relationship among older adults is rarely portrayed in movies or TV programs. Playwright Meena Natarajan based her play on research from the Program in Human Sexuality at the U and focus group narratives from seniors of diverse backgrounds and sexual orientations. This is the world premiere. Friday: 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday: 2:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/$10). Ends June 14. Ages 18 and up.

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