Crack In The Family Playwright Michael Matthews Knows About Addiction: It Threatened To Ruin His Brother. Now The Brothers Are In Philadelphia With A Play That's Sobering And Hopeful - And Sheldon Matthews Is Off Drugs.

Posted: March 10, 1990

Momma Don't, a touring gospel play that arrived at the Shubert Theater this week, is about how crack is tearing whole families asunder.

Playwright and director Michael Matthews did not have to imagine this devastation. He saw it firsthand.

In 1986, Matthews, a singer who had turned to selling real estate, discovered that his younger brother Sheldon was addicted to crack.

"I suspected something was wrong because he was losing weight and disappearing for days at a time. But when I really found out, I just couldn't believe it," Matthews said. He shook his head as he looked across the table in a Center City hotel at his brother, who is a member of the play's production staff. "Crack had taken control of my baby brother."

Sheldon Matthews, 34, a strapping man with a devilish wit, said drugs had such a stranglehold on him that he ignored his wife and two children. Once a devoted family man, he spent all his time in the tawdry world of the user.

"All I thought about was getting that stuff and cooking it up over a sink. Lord help if some of it fell down the drain. I was ready to tear up the sink," he said.

The Matthews family - middle-class, from Saginaw, Mich. - rallied around Sheldon and helped him recover.

That experience so touched Michael that he was inspired to write his first play, an anti-drug gospel production called Wicked Ways, which told of his brother's drug use and deception. A cousin's battle with cocaine provided the material for Momma Don't.

Matthews, 36, who also produced a television gospel show in Detroit, where he now lives, said he brought his family's pain to the stage to show that crack is not just an inner-city problem that affects poor blacks, but an epidemic with no social or racial bounds.

"I don't sugarcoat the seriousness of drug abuse. The play shows how crack maims its victims and destroys families," Matthews said.

Momma Don't revolves around Linda, a preacher's daughter who becomes a prostitute to support her crack habit. She becomes so gripped in the drug's embrace that she abuses her two teenage daughters.

The play uses searing gospel songs, comedy and colorful street language to takes its audience to crack houses, to church services and to alleys where prostitutes ply their trade. Amid all this, death strikes three times and Linda eventually finds salvation through religion.

The play stars Akosua Busia, best known for her role as Nettie in The Color Purple; Ernest Harden Jr., once of the sitcom The Jeffersons, and the Clark Sisters, a Grammy-nominated Detroit-based gospel quartet.

Since Momma Don't started touring in November, it has sold out in several cities, including Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Detroit. Tickets were in such demand here that the show's run, scheduled to end tomorrow has been extended through March 18. (It runs Tuesday through Sunday at the Shubert, 250 S. Broad St.)

"Everywhere we go, that's been the response," Matthews said. "People support this play because they know it is real, they know that crack is tearing up our community and they want to find the solution."

When the playwright first began to suspect his brother's addiction, he did not know what that solution was.

"I would go down into his basement; he had a big old house with lots of land, and I would tell him that the Lord was calling him and he'd better pick up the phone and talk to him," Matthews said.

The younger Matthews responded by mocking his brother, saying that the Lord was calling him so that the two could invest in a dope house together.

For a time, Sheldon Matthews was considered a family success story. He had a high-paying job with General Motors, and his wife also had a good job. Few knew that he also was one of Saginaw's big marijuana dealers.

"I started smoking weed in high school, then moved up to heroin, then cocaine, then crack," he said.

It was crack that nearly ruined him.

The powerfully addictive drug changed the younger Matthews' life. He found his body and his wallet growing progressively thinner as he began using more and more crack.

He would go on drug binges, not seeing his wife or his children for days. Once he got a $6,000 bonus from GM and vanished. While his family searched for him, young Matthews was holed up in a hotel room with a stash of crack. He returned home a week later, penniless.

"He was a dope fiend, but he wouldn't admit it to anyone, not even to

himself," said Michael Matthews.

Sheldon Matthews said he would lie constantly.

The sudden weight loss came because he was working out and jogging. (Jogging to the crack house, he joked.)

He blamed his money problems on bad investments.

Once, when a dose of bad cocaine left him sick and retching, he told his family and the doctors in the emergency room: "It was something I ate."

Then, after his brother repeatedly begged him to seek salvation in the church, Sheldon Matthews woke up at 6 a.m. one Sunday three years ago and decided it was time to seek help.

"I was tired of the pain, tired of the lies, tired of the things I was doing to myself and my family," he said.

His wife saw him packing his bags and assumed he was leaving her. Instead, ''I told her that I was going to get help," he said.

He went to a rehabilitation center for a month-long stay. That first week, his entire family - mother, siblings, cousins - visited to lend support.

"I finally told them the truth and I was crying, and we all were standing around crying and praying," he said.

Michael Matthews thereupon penned Wicked Ways, the play based on his brother's experiences with dope dealers. Michael had worked as a booking agent and had toured as a backup singer for big-name acts, but he had no real theater experience.

He wrote and produced a few other anti-drug plays, some of which traveled to regional theaters, before writing Momma Don't about his cousin. At the height of her addiction, Matthews said, she was turning tricks in front of her children.

Momma Don't shows how the children suffered, and how they saved their mother by helping her rediscover her religious roots. But it also focuses on the rough and dirty world of pimps and drug dealers.

Matthews' sketches of a prostitute's life are blunt, even stereotypical. The characters are broadly drawn (pimps in brightly colored suits and enough gold chains to tow a truck) and recall 1970s black exploitation movies. The audience at Tuesday's opening laughed during several scenes Matthews intended to be serious.

"I don't mind that they laughed as long as they understand the problem," he said. "I wanted to make a mockery out of this stuff so people can see just how crazy it is to be dealing in that drug world."

The play's ending is tidy, with Linda finding the strength to beat her addiction through her family and religion. But the inspirational message and the gospel rhythms helped carry the show, and the audience loved it.

At the play's end, with Linda's family gathered around her, the Clark Sisters filled the theater with their booming voices, turning the audience into a hand-clapping, foot-stomping, hand-waving congregation.

Singer Dorinda Clark summed it up. "Crack is cracking up the heads of the young people across this country. And we've got to do something about it," she told the audience.

Many responded by saying, "Amen."

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