How should a community theater respond when a community is in crisis?
For Anthony Bean, founder and artistic director of the Anthony Bean Community Theater, the answer is “Jungle Kings,” a jailhouse drama that kicks off ABCT’s 2016 season.
“Jungle Kings,” running Feb. 12-28, examines the corrupting influences in America’s inner cities and the struggle to rise above them. As communities in New Orleans and around the country continue to grapple with cycles of crime, gun violence, and escalating tensions between police and the public, Bean hopes “Jungle Kings” can spur understanding and action.
“I want to stay connected with what’s happening in the community, particularly with young black males and the justice system,” said Bean. “The souls of these young people are being neglected. These kids need investment, they need to know that we care.”
Written by activist and playwright Rain Denise Wilson, “Jungle Kings” stars Martin Bradford as Jason Watts, known in his neighborhood as “Baby Cockroach.” The plays finds Watts 10 years into a 25-to-life prison sentence, on the eve of his parole hearing. As Watts looks back on the circumstances and decisions that landed him in jail, he embarks on a Ebenezer Scrooge-like journey through his past, accompanied by the Professor (Robert DoQui) and the Hypnotist (Derrick Augustine), the forces of good and evil that have guided his life.
Director Robert DoQui returns to the role of the Professor after appearing in the play’s 2010 premier at the Raven Playhouse in Los Angeles. DoQui jumped at the chance to bring “Jungle Kings” to New Orleans, where kids in local communities are plagued by the same social ills depicted in the play.
“They’re living in gang-ridden, drug-infested areas, and have to survive just getting home at night, not having a lot to eat,” said DoQui. “Then these kids start loving the streets. They start banding together and loving the streets, and the streets become their family.”
DoQui appeared on stage last year in Southern Rep’s “Song of a Man Coming Through,” where he starred as Earnest Knighton, a real-life convicted killer who served on death row at Angola. That play, like “Jungle Kings,” depicted an incarcerated character trying to find hope in a hopeless situation.
“We have to know that life is all about choices,” said DoQui. “That’s the beautiful thing about this play, and that was the beautiful thing about the Knighton play. We can choose to stay where we are, or we can choose to elevate despite the circumstances.”
In an effort to spread their message to as many people as possible, ABCT will be inviting local church groups and students from area schools to see “Jungle Kings,” and they will host “talk backs” after Friday night performances.
“Jungle Kings” will be ABCT’s last production at Central St. Matthew’s United Church of Christ, the company’s longtime home on Carrollton Avenue where Bean has produced memorable shows, offered acting classes, and hosted special events for the past 15 years. In the next few weeks, Bean intends to announce plans for a new space, where he hopes to be able to do even more for the community.
“I’ve often said that we don’t invest enough in our youth, that we’re busy building better jails and more courtrooms instead of investing in our youth,” said Bean. “I want to put my money — or my mortgages, in this case — where my mouth is.”