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Sinner Stage

A new theater company seeks to reincarnate the morality play — with guest appearances by martial-arts experts and the Prince of Darkness.

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Abdul-Mumit calls the play "edutainment," combining a serious message with demon-kicking action. Two protagonists, fed up with urban violence they believe is instigated by the devil, plan to conjure Satan in a seance and then defeat him with the help of a warrior monk. Tyrone Staton, sifu (teacher) at the Tiger Crane martial arts studio, plays the monk. He's a massive man whose grace belies his size. People watch in awe when he practices a fluid kung fu routine. Kids squeal when he whips out a few lightning-fast kicks. "Do that again," one of them begs.



The goal is to electrify the audience, especially younger members, says Abdul-Mumit, while delivering a down-to-earth message about the temptations of street life.



"We started out, like I said, jumping into deep water," he says. He and his wife Latifah Abdul-Mumit, founders of the new theater company Sure Reality Productions, have directed a few small plays at universities before, Abdul-Mumit says, but nothing on the scale of "Inside Fighter."



With the exception of a handful of professional actors in the lead roles, Abdul-Mumit, 47, culled his cast via flyers, handshakes and word-of-mouth. Many of the 27 performers "probably never saw a script before in their life," he says. A Sunni Muslim, he sought to include both Christians and Muslims in the production, he says, including an entire gospel choir.



Funding came from small donations from friends, family, even strangers on the street who Abdul-Mumit convinced to donate. "I might be fortunate — I got a gift of gab," Abdul-Mumit says with a grin.



For the one-night-only June 1 performance, Abdul-Mumit wanted no lesser venue than the 2,000-seat Carpenter Center. But there was a problem: The Carpenter Center costs $3,000 to rent for a night, plus fees for sound and light technicians.



Executive director Joel Katz recalls when Abdul-Mumit first inquired about putting on a show. "I liked him a lot," Katz says. "And for three weeks I tried to talk him out of it."



He's seen too many small theater groups with grand plans, Katz says, that invest all they've got and end up playing to an empty house. But he was impressed with Abdul-Mumit's dedication and organizing skills, so they sat down and worked out a contract.



The Carpenter Center has hosted several plays with similar themes, he says. "It's not unusual in the African-American community to have that kind of strong message." But with martial arts? That's a first, he admits.



"He's showing us every indication that he's going to be successful," Katz says. It's not hard to believe, watching Abdul-Mumit's unfailing energy during one night's rehearsal in the Tropical Soul restaurant on 2nd Street, owned by a longtime friend.



Leaping on stage to fill in for an absent actor, he slumps his shoulders, pulls a hood over his head and metamorphoses into a strung-out junkie. "I'm straight, I'm straight," he mumbles, scratching himself.



A few minutes later, he straightens up and turns into a stern but supportive coach, exhorting his teen-age cast members to speak up as if 2,000 people were crammed into the incense-scented restaurant. When nearly every actor stumbles over his words in a rehearsal of a face-off between gang leaders, Abdul-Mumit admonishes them gently. "You've got to read it when you're home," he says. "Once in a while."



Soon Abdul-Mumit takes on another role, the smooth choreographer. "We gonna lay this out Michael Jackson style — hip-hop style," he explains to two skeptical teen-agers. He executes a quick spin, punches the floor and waggles his shoulders in a move he calls the Harlem Shake. Wasim Dodson, 13, busts out laughing. But his cousin Te'mon Dodson, 14, watches with interest and offers advice. "You don't see people in videos doin' this," he says of the shoulders, and demonstrates some lightning-fast footwork of his own.



It's not until 10:30 p.m., after a long rehearsal in which he never seems to stop zooming around the room, that Abdul-Mumit's calmer side comes out. His eyes are tired (most days, he only has time to wolf down his dinner between work and a four-hour practice) but energy simmers in his voice.



He explains how the idea came to him for "Inside Fighter." The big question for him, he says, has always been, When do people start making bad decisions? It's something he wonders about every panhandler, drug hustler, or young and desperate mother he sees. "At what point in their life did they give up, or start going into this negative thing?"



As a paralegal for well-known defense attorney David Baugh, he sees too many examples of kids who have taken a wrong turn, he says. "I see the girls come into court in their leather jackets." They look tough as nails, cold-blooded, he says — and underneath, there's a "tender little girl." One 13-year-old actor in the play has a page-and-a-half of disciplinary problems in his school files, and was recently suspended for allegedly calling a teacher "bitch." School officials seemed to think the boy was a hopeless case — but after Abdul-Mumit stepped in, tutored him and coached him as an actor, a new young man emerged.



"Our thing is to try to reach out to people before they get into that fast lane, that negative lane," he says. So what can a play do? First of all, he says, it can allow people to transform themselves on stage. Getting a bunch of young men to act as gang members steers them away from that path in real life, he says. And when a young audience sees their peers making good decisions on stage, Abdul-Mumit hopes, the message will spill over into everyday life.



Future projects include a documentary on Richmond's judicial system and street theater in the truest sense. Abdul-Mumit wants to enact small plays of 30 to 40 minutes on the streets of Richmond — downtown, at universities, in housing projects. But for now, he's preparing "Inside Fighter" for its on-stage debut.



Will the devil go down in five? Don't count on it, Abdul-Mumit says. "It doesn't end the way anybody thinks it's going to end." He adds, "The devil is just that slick." S



"Inside Fighter" plays at the Carpenter Center on June 1 at 8 p.m. For ticket information call Ticketmaster at 262-8100.





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