Anti-drug gospel show is taken from its director's family experience

September 19, 1990|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

"Momma Don't," a gospel musical playing at the Lyric Oper House through Sunday, is part of the new national black theater phenomenon.

But unlike its predecessors, including "Beauty Shop" and "Living Room," "Momma Don't" is not geared to just the black community. Although performed by an all-black cast, the play's anti-drug message is universal.

Written, directed and produced by Michael Matthews, a singer and producer of the "Late Night Gospel Show" for WGPR-TV in Detroit, this play, like Matthews' previous production, "Wicked Ways," is based on his family's devastating experiences with crack addiction.

"Momma Don't" opened in 1989 in Detroit and has since played major cities across the country. Another version is currently in its sixth successful week at the Beacon Theater, 74th Street and Broadway, in New York City.

"Mayor David Dinkins declared Aug. 21 official annual 'Momma Don't' Day," says Matthews in a phone conversation from his home in Detroit. "The professional New York theater community has been very supportive, and we have gotten great reviews," he claims.

"This play is a switch," he says. "A plea from youth to parents. Kids have a dilemma, too, when their mother or father become dependent on cocaine. It destroys the family structure."

Matthews' work, suggested by the ordeal of his cousin and her daughter, is the story of a preacher's daughter who has stooped to prostitution to sustain her drug habit. In her cocaine-induced state she abuses her two teen-age girls. But after several severe traumas the wayward soul finally sees the light and discovers salvation through religion.

The play uses rousing original gospel songs, colorful costumes and comedy to drive the anti-drug point home. It features Ernest Hardin Jr., formerly of the television series "The Jeffersons," Jackie Clark-Chisholm and Dorinda Clark-Cole of the Clark Sisters Quartet (a Grammy-nominated gospel group), and gospel singer Lynette Hawkins Stephens.

The oldest of seven children of a middle-class couple froSaginaw, Mich., Matthews studied business law at Wayne State University in Detroit. While he was a radio and TV producer at WGPR in Detroit, he saw a national touring production of "Dreamgirls." This served as inspiration for a career change and, drawing on the milestones in his own life, Matthews turned his sights on playwriting and theatrical production.

His first gospel play, "Wicked Ways" (now being rewritten as film), recounted his brother's long battle with cocaine. "We don't realize what this style of life is like," he says, "until it touches us. I am proud of my brother. He has been five years without a drug dependency. He travels with me and gives talks about drug abuse all over the country.

"My plays have not been tailored to the black community," he says fervently. "The drug problem strikes at every level of life without regard for race, color or creed. Ninety percent of my audience is black, but as we grow nationally I think we will draw more of a cross section of people."

Matthews feels his plays are flourishing because he is using the gospel musicals to entertain, yet educate that drugs and violence are wrong. The scenarios focus on the tough and grimy world of pimps and drug dealers.

"Black audiences are coming to my shows and others to see what theater is all about, too," he says. "Many have never been to a theater before.

"My own story has a happy ending," he adds softly. "I feel thankful to see my work staged."

Show times for "Momma Don't" are: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 3 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday. Ticket prices range from $12.50 to $21.50 and are available at the Lyric Opera House and the Baltimore Arena box offices, Hecht's and all area Ticket Center outlets.

For reservations and ticket information, call 481-6000 or toll-free at 1-800-448-9009.

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