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Review: Jungle Kings 

Rain Denise Wilson’s gritty drama gets a staging at Anthony Bean Community Theater

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A young man known by the nickname Baby Cockroach is in prison for a murder he committed when he was 15. Now 25, he awaits a parole hearing that could set him free — if the board thinks he's changed. In the days leading to the hearing, Baby Cockroach confronts the street influences that led to his incarceration in Anthony Bean Community Theater's production of Jungle Kings, the final production at its longtime home on Carrollton.

  As Baby Cockroach (Martin Bradford) waits, he's the subject of an argument in a neighboring cell, where Professor (Robert DoQui) confronts the supernatural Hypnotist (Josef Pons), a devil character. At times, it's unclear if the Professor is real and how the Hypnotist influences people, but the two characters' dialogue functions as the play's conflicted conscience. The Professor is level-headed as he tells Baby Cockroach that education is a way to true freedom. DoQui, who also directed the show, has a measured calmness that balances the fiery tone of the narrative. The Hypnotist is the opposite — brash and loud-mouthed. He's a force that convinces young black men they should sell drugs and break the law. At times, Pons breaks the fourth wall to implicate the audience and society at large in the jailed men's actions.

  Written by Rain Denise Wilson, Jungle Kings explores reasons behind the disproportionate incarceration of young black men. The play touches on police bias but mostly focuses on neighborhood influences. Edward Eugene's set functions as a prison and neighborhood and merges the two environments to show an incarceration pipeline. Other characters who influenced Baby Cockroach tell their stories. Proper Boy (D.C. Paul) was a friend who went to private school and stole cars to fit in with the neighborhood boys. Beanstalk (Rodney Graham) is a talented basketball player whose stepfather got him addicted to drugs. He eventually killed a man in a drug-related robbery, and Graham delivers a moving monologue about addiction and lost opportunity.

  Baby Cockroach wants to change but feels allegiance to his neighborhood and what he's learned on the street. Bradford is natural, charismatic and exudes strong emotions without forcing the drama. He's a talented actor who plays the role with humanity and grit. Baby Cockroach is especially loyal to his mentor and surrogate father, Cockroach (Sam Malone). Cockroach says he committed all of his crimes because he was taught to hate himself; Malone is unflinching in these tough moments.

  Baby Cockroach's story is similar to others in his community, and the final parole hearing shows how hard it is to break the cycle. As a piece of activist theater, Jungle Kings speaks directly to young men and offers a call to action.

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