Jennifer Nelson has been part of the Mosaic Theater Company team since its founding last year when Artistic Director Ari Roth invited her to serve as Resident Director. After long and fruitful associations with such groundbreaking institutions as Living Stage Theatre Company and African Continuum Theatre Company, Nelson’s first directing project in her new home is Marcus Gardley's The Gospel of Lovingkindness, running through January 3. The play tells the story of two teenage boys with big dreams whose paths cross unexpectedly on Chicago’s South Side. Nelson describes the play as one which “brings headlines to life,” and raises a myriad of social questions including how women—and mothers in particular—respond to street violence. It also addresses the impact of the minimum wage for the American population, and what happens to the thousands of young people who have unfounded hopes for instant success in the sports and entertainment industries.
Nelson puts the play’s thematic questions simply: “Everybody’s trying to get the golden ticket, but what about the people who don’t?”
Because the piece requires four actors to play a dozen roles, Nelson approached the production with what she calls as an “improvisational spirit,” calling upon the work she did at Living Stage, where actors move quickly through characters in order to drive the action of the play. Performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center as a part of Mosaic’s resident arts partnership, the play is staged in a thrust configuration. “[It ] brings its own set of challenges and opportunities in terms of how you have to keep things moving,” Nelson explains. In addition to staging challenges, Nelson and the Mosaic team are rising to the challenge of being a fledgling company presenting at a venue that is still new to much of their audience. “This means we have to get people to come to a brand new season in a place that a lot of DC theatregoers are not accustomed to coming to,” she says.
Though The Gospel of Lovingkindness has particular relevance for young people, parents, and teachers, Nelson believes the play also challenges a broad spectrum of audiences to consider their role in combatting the self-perpetuating nature of the cycle of poverty. It asks audiences to have a more profound response to local tragedy than, as Nelson puts it, “to just sit back and wring our hands and say, ‘too bad, not again.’” She offers, “It doesn’t mean everybody should come out and become a political activist—although that could happen too—but we are looking to present, in entertaining fashion, some challenges to a kind of status quo in the American middle class, the ticket-buying public.”
Mosaic is committed to producing powerful, transformational, socially-relevant art. Nelson explains, “One of the things that this season will prove as Mosaic’s first is that it’s committed to being a theatre of conscience, not just bland entertainment or feel-good shows, but things that will challenge the audience to think about issues that may not affect them directly, but that do affect their communities. Washington is fortunate that there are some other places that feel the same mission, but not everybody does it as the primary directive of their season. In that way, Mosaic is unique.”
Artistic Director Ari Roth is clear in his intention to produce urgent, conversation-starting work. “I look for plays that grab you by the lapels,” he says. “The plays this inaugural season bespeak an urgency. They point to wounds in our society that the theater is uniquely able to address.” Nelson adds, “Each of the shows Ari’s chosen has something to say about a particular community and how that community handles stress—political stress, economic stress, ethnic-rivalry stress, gender issues, LGBT issues—when they get up close and personal, not just when you read about them in the paper.”
Catch The Gospel of Lovingkindness at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab II, through January 3, 2016.