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Blackfriars' 'Surely Goodness and Mercy' offers kindness and hope 

click to enlarge Annan Bates, as Tino, and Kat Rina Davis, as Miss Bernadette, perform in Blackfriars Theatre's "Surely Goodness and Mercy." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Annan Bates, as Tino, and Kat Rina Davis, as Miss Bernadette, perform in Blackfriars Theatre's "Surely Goodness and Mercy."
“Surely Goodness and Mercy” takes its title from a biblical verse from Psalms that 12-year-old Tino shares with his lunch lady Bernadette when visiting her in the hospital: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

“I like that one,” she tells him. “It’s optimistic.”

Optimism permeates this relatively new play by Chisa Hutchinson, first produced in 2017 and now playing at Blackfriars Theatre through April 9 in a production directed by Jonathan Ntheketha. Though set in an unjust world filled with an abusive guardian, oppressive school teachers, and unaffordable healthcare, the play celebrates characters who go out of their way to help each other.

The play centers on Tino, a socially awkward middle school kid looking for solace after his mother sacrificed herself to save him from a gunshot. He brings his Bible everywhere, and chooses a church based on its Yelp rating — much to the disdain of his aunt Alneesa, his bitter, cussing caretaker. At school, only the cantankerous Miss Bernadette looks out for him, until he befriends Deja, a girl who scratches her arm down to the bone, and they bond over a mutual interest in church. The first act develops these relationships, setting the stage for a more action-filled second act.

Both Tino and Deja are played by age-appropriate actors from School of the Arts. Annan Bates, who is in the 10th grade, captured Tino’s endearing awkwardness, and 7th-grader Genesis Arrindell brings a charming spunk to Deja. Both characters are wise beyond their years, which is conveyed by the professionalism of these promising young actors.
click to enlarge From left, Genesis Arrindell, who plays Deja, acts out a scene alongside Annan Bates and Kat Rina Davis in "Surely Goodness and Mercy." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • From left, Genesis Arrindell, who plays Deja, acts out a scene alongside Annan Bates and Kat Rina Davis in "Surely Goodness and Mercy."
The standout performance comes from Kat Rina Davis. Her portrayal of Miss Bernadette elicited hearty laughs from the audience for her pointed scolding of the school kids, as well as compassion for her writhing pain from multiple sclerosis.

The play feels like it wants to be written for film or TV, jumping from home to classroom to hospital to church in short bursts. The frequent transitions are smoothed out with jazzy synth-organ and feel-good soul music. The set, designed by Tyler Pacilio, clearly differentiates between the many locations with two beds, school chairs and desks, a couch, a church pew, and a lunch station all cleverly arranged onstage.

In addition to the short cinematic scenes, there’s an unusual number of pre-recorded voice-overs, including the sermons Tino hears in church and the voices of the teacher and principal. All the voice actors are engaging, but it is strange for a character-driven drama to give so much time to unseen, minor characters.

The final scene, which consists of a conversation between Miss Bernadette and the disembodied voice of the school principal, is an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.
click to enlarge Adryanna Elemendorf, as Alneesa, with Annan Bates in "Surely Goodness and Mercy." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR.
  • Adryanna Elemendorf, as Alneesa, with Annan Bates in "Surely Goodness and Mercy."
The play has plenty of goodness without getting too saccharine, summed up in Deja’s confession that “I like people —sometimes.” I was expecting a little more mercy — especially from the playwright toward her characters. Tino’s aunt, Alneesa, is played with convincing bitterness by Adryanna Elmendorf, but the script doesn’t provide much backstory or nuance to her abusive behavior, reducing her to a stereotypical foster-parent villain. Deja is also disappointingly underwritten. Her compulsion to scratch her arm is a fascinating, compelling problem, but it goes away quickly after she becomes friends with Tino.

Despite some bumpiness in the script, the Blackfriars production delivers a testament to community and caring for others. Two years into a global pandemic, it’s heartening to watch people who have suffered still going out of their way to look after each other.

“Surely Goodness and Mercy” plays March 31 through April 9 at Blackfriars Theatre, 795 E. Main St. 454-1260. $30.50 to $36.50. Group, student, and senior discounts available. Proof of vaccination with ID, plus masking, is required. blackfriars.org.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.
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