The low-level yet bloody drug wars that take place on street corners across the country are the subject of the Theater for a New Generation's "Corner Wars," which just closed its run at the 47th Street Theatre. Director Mel Williams stresses the realism of the play, and first-time playwright Tim Dowlin was inspired in part by a notorious real-life shooting in North Philadelphia. In this sense, -- despite its various flaws -- the production generally succeeds, delivering a walloping punch of gritty street life.
The action is centered on a street corner in North Philly, simply and successfully rendered by set designer Justin Grant. There a group of teens -- Kareem (David Shaw), Brody (Cornell McIntosh), Dex (Omar Evans), and Chris (Joel Holiday), led by the slightly older Jay (Eric Carter) and Jah (Chris Williams) -- deals pot and has recently added crack to their inventory. The trouble starts when a rival crew starts selling on a nearby corner, threatening business and adding heroin to the mix.
The teens don't indulge in drugs themselves and Dowlin takes pains to show that many of them are in it only in pursuit of nobler goals: Dex deals drugs to support his graffiti art and his grandmother, for example. But elsewhere in the play Dowlin's more political points feel overly simplistic. The line about the 'younger generation not having any options,' for example, -- even if it is true -- is preachy and hokey. The worst examples of this are the scenes with the white social worker and detectives, which border on parody.
Fortunately, the drawbacks in the script are in part compensated for by the energy and raw talent displayed by many of the actors in the play. All of the actors in the gang deliver credible performances, which says something in light of the fact that some of them are still in high school. The best is probably Omar Evans, who can convincingly go from youthful idealism to seriously menacing in the space of a few minutes. Eric Carter and Chris Williams are also quite good as young adults who should presumably know better but don't. Cornell McIntosh adds a much-needed element of humor as a skinny, geeky kid drowning in his puffy satin basketball jacket. The women's parts lack depth, however, and the actresses portraying them do not make much of an impression.
The hip-hop "soundtrack" by Strongarm Ent/Roundtable is very effective, particularly the opening theme, which has a trance-like repetitive sound that captures the cyclical and seemingly inevitable nature of the drug trade.
There is talk that the show will be revived in March. Despite the play's lack of polish, 'props' are due to its promising young actors, as well as to Dowlin for his showcasing of important subjects and a contemporary rap idiom that are seldom depicted on stage.