Rain Denise Wilson's Jungle Kings is full of raw emotion. A few of its characters are young black men in jail, and they revisit the paths that got them there with a mix of blunt street talk, reflection and remorse. The tone fits the voice of a playwright with a spoken-word background, but the story also comes from a personal place.
"This whole project was a feat of love from Rain Wilson," says Robert DoQui, who directs and stars in the play. "She works (in Chicago) with inner-city youth. She lost family members to gang violence. She was seeking out actors who wanted to reach young people."
Wilson directed productions in Chicago and Indiana and then Los Angeles, where DoQui performed the role of Professor. DoQui directs and reprises his role at Anthony Bean Community Theater in what will be the theater's last production at its 15-year home at St. Matthew United Church of Christ.
The work is nominally set in Chicago, marked only by a couple of references to city neighborhoods. This is the first production in which Wilson is not involved, but she will attend opening night, DoQui says.
The story follows Baby Cockroach (Martin "Bats" Bradford), who at 25 has spent 10 years in jail for murder. He's about to go before the parole board.
He's surrounded by other young prisoners and characters Baby Cockroach knew from his neighborhood, including a sort of mentor, Cockroach (Sam Malone) — nicknamed because he seemingly couldn't be killed or made to go away — who both looked out for Baby and brought him into the world of drug dealers.
Bean (Rodney Graham) is Baby's older brother, who had his own means to escape poverty and struggled to protect his Baby. Monsta (Damien Moses) climbed to the top of the drug world as a means to master his environment. Proper Boy (DC Paul) simply tried to survive his tough neighborhood.
Professor hopes Baby Cockroach will say the right things to the parole board, but he knows the struggle runs deeper than just saying the right things.
"It's like A Christmas Carol in the prison system," DoQoi says. "Baby Cockroach is in jail, but he's young enough to get his life together if he so chooses."
The struggle is much more than a matter of reflection and resolve, and another character reminds Professor how hard it is to change people.
"The streets build kids in its image," DoQui says. "Part of the idea is to get people to feel again. The kids cry out by lashing out. They can feel invisible and they want people to see them."
Past productions have featured frequent Q&A sessions, and there will be talkbacks following Friday performances at Bean Theater. Wilson's project has had a social mission to it, and DoQui also wants to reach young audiences.
Actors Bradford and Moses recently appeared together at Ashe Power House Theater in Harold Clark's Fishers of Men, another work about reaching troubled young men on the streets and keeping them from lives of crime.
Jungle Kings is the Bean Theater's final work at its current home. Anthony Bean announced the theater purchased St. Raymond Catholic Church at 3720 Paris Avenue in Gentilly. The theater will finish its current season there and add dance and music spaces as well as a museum dedicated to African-American theater companies such as Free Southern Theater, Dashiki Project Theater and Ethiopian Theater.