Judge Greg Mathis grew up humbly in the Herman Gardens public housing project in Detroit, Mich. As a youth in an impoverished community, Mathis made questionable decisions that eventually landed him behind bars for possession of a firearm at 17 years old. 

After serving his nine-month sentence, he soon turned his life around. He later earned his law degree, and in 1995, became Michigan’s youngest judge ever. His accomplishment made national news, and led to him co-writing a 1997 gospel musical, called Inner City Miracle, with legendary playwright Ron Milner, featuring Fred Hammond.

Astonished by his story, Hollywood producers approached Mathis about the possibility of his own show. Mathis agreed to do the show, granted that they remind viewers of his story before every episode, inspiring a generation of viewers. The “Judge Mathis” show spent 24 seasons on air, with the show ending in May 2023. 

From jail to judge, Judge Mathis has defied the odds, and will now inspire audiences with his new stage play, Don’t Judge Me. Chronicling the life of Judge Mathis, the stage play premieres on Nov. 10, and will run through Nov. 12, at John Ruffin’s Theater 47 in Park Forest, a south suburb of Chicago.

“I decided that I’m going to revive that inspirational story in a different way,” Mathis told The TRiiBE. The play allows him to tell his story to a new audience, since producers cut his story out of the “Judge Mathis” show as it gained popularity. His target millennial audience has become more and more unfamiliar with his story.

“That’s where you get Don’t Judge Me. It’s an opportunity to entertain and to inspire. So that’s what we’re doing,” Mathis said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The TRiiBE: This isn’t the first time you’ve done a play about your life. You’ve talked about how you worked with Ron Milner, the famous playwright, on your first production. You both are from Detroit. Can you talk about that Detroit connection and Inner City Miracles, which debuted in 1997? 

Judge Mathis: Ron Milner was mentored by Langston Hughes, and was one of the top Black Broadway directors. [He] came to me and thought my story was interesting. He wanted to write a script for both a stage production and perhaps a film. So I trusted it with him. We did a stage production and we toured 26 cities, along with Fred Hammond. It was biographical and it was a major success. 

What occurred afterwards is, when Warner Brothers came to me and offered me television, I was a sitting judge. They told me that I only had a 20% chance of success on television. So it was a big risk for me to leave my comfortable judgeship. But what I asked them to do in exchange was to show my journey from jail to judge at the beginning of every show, so that it would inspire folks around the country on how they can overcome their obstacles. So they agreed to do so. So for the first 10 years, my show had that introduction. Folks were coming up to me, both young people and particularly single mothers saying, “thanks for what you do for sharing your story. It changed my life or changed my son’s life.” [Then] suddenly that stopped. People stopped coming to me saying that a few years after they stopped running it. And so in recent years, I’m finding that most of your generation, meaning millennials, are not aware of my backstory. They’re not being inspired. So I’m really wasting my time on television by not inspiring anyone. 

So I decided that I’m going to revive that inspirational story in a different way. That’s where you get Don’t Judge Me. It’s an opportunity to entertain and to inspire.

Inner City Miracle was a gospel musical. How much has your faith guided you throughout your journey?

My faith has been everything during that journey and I continue to be grateful for my blessings, but that’s the difference between me and all the other guys I grew up with in the projects. They didn’t have a foundation to turn back to when they decided to change their lives. They didn’t have a good grip on, quite frankly, a moral compass, moral values, simple morality, or spiritual values. My mother force fed those spiritual values in our early years. She force-fed education, doing our homework every day after school. We hated all of it. All of our friends didn’t have to do any of that. They were just running wild in the projects. We had to wait until mama went to one of her two jobs before we could run wild. But the reason we were able to recover is because of that spiritual foundation that was instilled in us. 

So how much of Inner City Miracle will be incorporated in Don’t Judge Me?

Really none at all. This will be totally fresh, and it has multiple levels of entertainment, and immersive in production. We have film clips that run in between segments. We have dancers. We have lighting shows and so it’s a lot different. We don’t have Fred Hammond, that’s the big difference.

What will your part be in Don’t Judge Me

I’m gonna be Judge Mathis, the television entertainer, times 10. In other words, yes, I’ll have dialogue on stage, but you’re gonna get a lot of humor, a lot of drama, and a lot of heart-grabbing moments in my delivery. But yes, I will be on stage live, delivering a lot of entertaining dialogue, similar to what comedians might do. So tell folks: don’t sit in the first three rows, you may be the crackhead that night.

You mentioned millennials not knowing your story. You did 24 seasons on the “Judge Mathis” show. The real question we want to know is, how real was that show?

The “Judge Mathis” show is totally real. We are arbitrators. I was a sitting judge. And on the shows, we are arbitrators in which the litigants sign paperwork, agreeing to abide by our arbitration decision. We bring the people in, we fly people in at no cost, and we pay a judgment for them. Those are the secrets of the trade. Otherwise, these are people that would have taken their case to a regular court, or they would remove it from the regular court and bring it to us as arbitrators.

What about your experience as a youth makes you different from other judges?

I don’t believe any of them have lived my life. I don’t believe any of them were jailed and had their law license held up by the Ethics Committee, having to get their law license at a trial in the state Supreme Court, and then 15 years later becoming the youngest judge in Michigan history. No judge in America has that experience.

1999 is the start of your television career. You became legendary. I was born in 1992. People my age grew up with you on TV. Tell us, did you ever think you would be here, still relevant after two decades? Was there ever a moment of doubt?

Well, there’s doubt every few years when the contract comes up! I’ll tell you this. I have believed after every contract, since my second contract in 2002, that this would be my last contract. So for 24, going on 25 years, six different times I believed it would be my last time. I haven’t taken it for granted. I don’t take the viewers for granted. I just hope that they’re enjoying the show, and accepting some of the wisdom, inspiration, and entertainment that I try to bring to the show.

is a culture correspondent with The TRiiBE.