"With urban theater," King says, "you walk away not just with a conversation but with a solution. That's the main goal: a solution. People know where to move."

As King tells it, his play was born in the summer of 2004, when he was working as a camp counselor in a summer youth program. On a field trip to the Arch, some of the kids began talking about the differences between blacks and whites and how they would have to act "white" if they ever wanted to leave the ghetto.

"This eleven-year-old said if he left the ghetto, he'd be selling out," King remembers. "His friends all said, 'Yeah.' Growing up, I never thought that. I know personal lack. But it baffles me to hear that reasoning for what they do."

King shows off the proclamation that 
declares November 19 "Joel King Day."
King shows off the proclamation that declares November 19 "Joel King Day."

King began writing that summer. At a staged reading the following year, attendees criticized his work as more of a public-service announcement than a play. In subsequent drafts he toned down the didacticism and added humor, more secondary characters and what he hoped was more of a female perspective, in order to portray a more complete view of life on St. Louis Avenue.

"Real Life is using theater to teach what's happening in the streets as Joel perceives it," says Kathryn Bentley, an assistant professor of theater at Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville whom King cites as a mentor. "St. Louis needs more artistic choices. Lots of folks don't go to the Rep or the Black Rep or HotCity, but they go to Joel's plays. What Joel has done is introduce folks who have not been to shows, or in shows, to the theater and told them: 'This is something you can do, and it's exciting.' Joel represents a trend toward people — artists — wanting to tell their stories their way."

In many ways urban theater is to traditional theater as poetry slams are to traditional poetry. It's firmly rooted in its own community, unrecognized by — and uninterested in — the wider world. Mainstream theater critics pay it no attention — none of King's plays has been reviewed by Riverfront Times or the Post-Dispatch, and prominent members of the local theater scene (Steven Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, for instance), have never heard of him. King finds his audiences among his family and friends and in north-side churches, where he spreads the word during Sunday services.

And like the poetry that emerges from poetry slams, urban theater doesn't get much respect from people who consider themselves arbiters of good taste. "Morality tales are always popular, and that's what those productions are," says Ron Himes, director of the Black Rep. "They have a way of appealing to a broad common denominator." Himes admits he hasn't seen any of King's plays.

With black theater, there's very little middle ground between literary playwrights such as multiple Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson and populists like Tyler Perry. Imagine all of St. Louis theater reduced to the Shakespeare Festival and the summer musicals at the Muny and nothing else, and you have an idea of the range of choices afforded to audiences who want to see plays about African Americans.

King's work falls near the Perry end of the scale. Like King, Perry started with small community productions before breaking into national tours and, eventually, the movies and TV. Also like King, Perry and his work were largely ignored by mainstream (that is, white) critics. That all changed when a few reporters discovered that his plays and movies — particularly the ones featuring Madea, a big, angry, gun-toting, pot-smoking granny played by Perry in drag — were raking in obscene amounts of money.

King, though, wants to be more than the second coming of Tyler Perry. "[Perry] stays more on the chitlin circuit," King says. "I want to branch out. Real Life is kind of broad for me. But my other pieces tend to challenge relationship and family issues. My plays dissect the mentality of the African American man: where we came from, where we are today, how we succumb, how we come to stay in prison. That's my thing. Tyler Perry has a more sophisticated, mainstream approach."

King cites Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou and Lynn Nottage as his artistic forebears. "They speak to the social movements behind our lives," he says. Some of their work also moves beyond the strictly literal in a way King would like to imitate.

"In Real Life Joel balances a story about living life in the ghetto with more avant-garde elements," says Keidra Pelloquin, the show's costume designer. "It has that introductory dream sequence where Ray's within this dream with dancing roaches and trash. Most urban theater tells a straightforward story, and the characters are stereotypes. Joel is trying hard to provide an alternative to that."

That twenty-minute "dream sequence" is actually more of a nightmare, complete with hallucinogenic lighting and music, and it foreshadows some of the main plot points, including Ray's arrest. It portrays St. Louis Avenue less as a safe haven and a home than a trap that's difficult to escape. It's the most radical element of Real Life, which settles into a more conventional drama as soon as Ray wakes up, putting aside the message in favor of jokes at the expense of the church ladies and Champagne and Juicy, the neighborhood's two finger-snapping gay boys.

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