"Urban theater covers truth with laughter," says King. "But sometimes it needs subtlety, not humor. There are moments when you need to sit and listen. The first act is more humor, and the second act raises more issues. I've learned that to make a show relevant, people first have to draw near. You have to make it easy for them to relate."

King often adds verisimilitude by using non-professional actors and assigning them roles based on how closely they resemble their character.

"The best way to connect is to use real stories," agrees Marion Friedman, managing director of the Civilians, an experimental "investigative theater" company in Brooklyn, New York, that builds its scripts around interviews with real people. Friedman worked as a stage manager for many of August Wilson's plays and is familiar with traditional African American theater.

Joel King surveys his fictional stamping grounds of St. Louis Avenue.
Jennifer Silverberg
Joel King surveys his fictional stamping grounds of St. Louis Avenue.
A scene from Real Life.
Christopher “King Yella” Hawkins
A scene from Real Life.

"[Urban theater is] an attempt at giving a voice to emerging African American writers," she continues. "I can't say, though, that it's been entirely successful. I feel we are in a cult of the playwright. A community finds people to be gatekeepers, influential voices. They're identified as 'quality playwrights.' I don't mean to sound unkind, but artistic directors can say, 'Great, let's program [Tarell] McCraney" — a young black playwright and contemporary of King — "for Black History Month, and then we don't have to find a local playwright.'"

With acclaim comes money: bigger, more prestigious grants; residencies with established theater companies and, most important, producers with deep pockets.

"There's not a lot of funding for someone who wants to start up," says Autry Jackson, a long-time employee of the Missouri Arts Council and the actress who portrays Ray's grandmother in Real Life. "It's tricky breaking into the funding pool. People will not fund things that will be here for two or three years and then go away."

Most of King's plays have been funded by his own company, JPEK Creative Works, which he founded in 2007. In addition to the plays, JPEK sponsored the Space, an arts center in midtown St. Louis that doubled as a gallery and hosted open-mic nights and fashion shows before shutting down for financial reasons in 2009.

"The group of people who work with us are the JPEK family," says Reona Lenox, JPEK's chief operating officer. "They've helped to push us up to this point. We've had no money. These are all acts of love. Like a family, they're not asking for compensation. They love you and want your vision to go further."

Like most people involved in JPEK, Lenox has known King a long time, in her case since they were in college together at SIU-Edwardsville. It's her job to manage the money so King can concentrate on his art. Real Life is the first play they've done with a budget "in the double digits," she jokes (it cost less than $10,000 to produce). A lot of that money comes from friends like KMOV-TV (Channel 4) anchorwoman Vickie Newton and Nicole Colbert, an advocate who works in the Missouri Attorney General's office and whose sister, Lisa, was one of King's teachers at SIUE. (Lisa Colbert passed away in 2002.)

"We've assisted Joel in making his dreams a reality," Nicole Colbert says simply. "He takes his craft so seriously, it's hard not to be drawn in. Every teacher has one star student, and for Lisa that was Joel. We've given him financial support and helped him by getting people to come out [to his shows]. More important, it's not just financial, but also being there when he needs something, to give advice or help spread the word. It's an honor for our family to support him."

Everyone connected with JPEK expects Real Life to be the show that catapults King to national attention. Even if the investors decide they don't want Real Life after all, King has been planning a move to Los Angeles for many months, though he keeps pushing back the departure date. He'll be going alone, at least at first; Lenox and the rest of the company have day jobs and families and other commitments that keep them tied to St. Louis. He doesn't like to talk about that. "I feel very blessed," he says vaguely. "I hope this type of energy will precede me wherever I go."

Back at the Grandel, everybody's waiting to see when — and if — the would-be bankrollers will show up. Fifteen minutes pass, then half an hour. At 6:50 King finally climbs back onstage.

"Our guests are in the building!" he announces.

The house lights dim, a single spot shines on the stage, a disembodied male voice commences to bitch about how kids today have no respect, and Real Life is under way at last.

Three blocks from the Grandel, at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, King's mother, Rosalind, waits. She has no idea of the high-stakes drama playing out at the theater. This is the first of her son's performances she has ever missed. But this morning, her husband, Marvin, was hospitalized with an infection in his knee. Marvin is diabetic and has dementia. An extended hospital stay sometime around the holidays has become an annual event with him and, as she does every year, Rosalind stays with him.

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