"Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts

O lordy they could love

Swore to be true to each other,

True as the stars above.

He was her man, but he done her wrong ."

For decades, dozens of songs have sent Frankie to jail or the gallows for shooting her Johnny.

But according to the Covenant Artistic Stage Theater (C.A.S.T.) of the Covenant Baptist Church at 3845 South Capitol St., Frankie's been getting a bum rap all these years. It was really wicked Nellie Blye that blew Johnny away.

C.A.S.T., a church youth group with 31 members ages 7 to 17, started rewriting the story of Frankie and Johnny a year ago. They play grew into a three-hour production complete with songs, dances, prison scenes and courtroom drama right out of Perry Mason.

After three performances at the church in November, C.A.S.T. was asked to present the play again last Friday and Saturday nights and will perform "Frankie and Johnny" once more today for the students of Johnson Junior High School at Bruce and Robinson Place SE.

"We picked 'Frankie and Johny' because we like the Elvis Presley movie and the Sam Cooke song," said 14-year-old Sharon Ricks, a student at John Hanson Junior High who helped write the script. "But we wanted to surprise the audience. Everyone thinks that Frankie killed Johnny, and we wanted to do something of our own."

Zccording to 15-year-old Linda Powell, a student at Ballou Senior High and youth director of the play, "By changing the story, we could put our message across - that the church can help you. It can be part of your everyday life, not just a place to go on Sunday."

You see, in the C.A.S.T. play, a character call Rev. James is a real hero.

Frankie is just an innocent country girl who comes to Swing City to visit a friend, the busybody Mouthie. At a party, Frankie meets Johnny, "the baddest dude in town," and you know what happens next.

Nellie Blye, the leader of a gang called the "Sweethearts of Soul," also has her eye on Johnny, and won't give up easy. Frankie catches her with Johnny at Sarah's Place, a local hang-out, and goes bonkers. Three shots rang out , and Johnny is dead. That's where Rev. James comes in. He visits Frankie in prison and uses his understanding of human nature to track down the real killer - the envious Nellie Blye.

In the courtroom, Nellie confesses that she meant to ice Frankie, but the bullet ricocheted and hit Johnny instead. Frankie gets off and harmony reigns in Swing City.

"We changed the story in order to present the church in a positive light," said Dennis Wiley, the painist and choir director who also wrote the script, music and lyrics with suggestions fom the youthful C.A.S.T. members.

"Most television shows and black films don't take the church seriously," Wiley explained. "In this play, the minister plays a crucial role, showing that the church can help us deal with problems we face on the streets, in school and at home.

"At first, the kids were attracted to the Frankie and Johnny story because of the killing and lifestyle is presented. But once they understood what I was trying to do, it wasn't hard to win them over to the message."

Wiley, a 27-year-old Havard graduate, has worked as a counsellor at the Duke Ellington High School for the Arts, Workshop for Careers in the Arts and the Educational Opportunity Center. He is the son of H. Wesley Wiley, pastor of the Covenant Baptist Church.

"Frankie and Johnny" is only one of the Wiley family's efforts to revitalize the Covenant Baptist Church as a focal point of community life. Mr. Wiley was called to the church in 1969 by a white congregation that was watching most of its membership pack up for the suburbs.

Since then, the congregation has grown from 85 to about 300 active members, says Mr. Wiley, mostly young black adults and their families who have joined the church in the last few years.Mr. Wiley attributes part of the growth to the community outreach program organized by his son. In the evenings, the church offer classes, workshops, choir practice, counseling and, of course, rehearsals.

To mount the three-hour play, C.A.S.T. met twice a week for months and every night during November. But according to one mother, "I couldn't keep my kids away."

With the kids came the parents, recruited to keep 31 young spirits in line. Other members of the congregation were asked to make costumes, scenery and give advice on the script. Debra Newman, a co-director of the play who works as an archivist at the National Archives, says she went to the church dances, then stayed till 1 or 2 o'clock each morning to sew the costumes and paint the backdrops.

The directors may get tired, but not the C.A.S.T. members. Kelvin Everett, a junior at Springarn Senior High, had only one question after playing Johnny: "What play are we doing next?"