The story of the King family is more complex than what Joel reveals in Real Life.

There were ten kids growing up in the Kings' little house in East St. Louis. (Another child, a girl, died in 1982.) It was not a good neighborhood. "Our street connected to a drug street," Joel remembers. "A man once got shot and stabbed right in front of my mother's home. It made me fearful."

There was never much money. Marvin worked four or five jobs. When the bigger kids were old enough to watch the little ones, Rosalind would join him on his late-night job driving a cab — that was the only way they were able to spend time together. Sometimes the utility companies would cut off the gas or electricity or water. Neighbors would string extension cords into the Kings' house and collect water in barrels for the family to use. When she couldn't afford groceries, Rosalind would feed her kids as much popcorn as they could stand, then give them water so the popcorn expanded to fill their bellies. "No one could ever say they went to bed hungry," she says.

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.

Some of the older King boys were attracted to the street life; King has based the character of Ray partially on one of his brothers. Ray's strong-minded Aunt T, who tries to convince him to get off the couch and get a job in a showstopping gospel number called "Nigger, Please," owes something to Rosalind King, a short, dark-skinned woman with a broad face that appears equally on the verge of breaking into a smile or into tears.

"I never say that word," Rosalind wants it known. "I might have said, 'Nigra, please.' But I do agree that women have to be careful about enabling men. If a man is laying it on you, he needs a reality check. I tried to get [all my kids] where they need to be."

"My oldest brother got involved in a gang," says Joel King. "Initially, it got him. One night he got in his car to drive away and locked my mother out. She took a stick and hit the car. My parents were trying to save their children."

Unlike Ray's father, Marvin King was always around. "We've been married 42 years," says Rosalind. "Marvin has been a father, not a baby-daddy."

And there was always church. Marvin's brother Levi is the pastor at the Gateway Area Bible Fellowship Apostolic Church of East St. Louis, which the Kings attended and which provided the stage for Joel's first production, A Mother's Cry. ("In East St. Louis everyone knows the King family," says Jerome Davis, an actor Joel refers to as his theatrical godfather.) To this day, all of King's rehearsals conclude with a prayer.

In the end, none of the King kids ended up on the streets. All ten went to college or trade school or joined the military. "They always had each other's backs," Rosalind says. "When one went off to college, the next one would support them and lift them up by sending care packages and money."

Joel was the seventh child. His kindergarten teacher told his mother he was special, but she didn't believe it. "I said, 'You just like him because he's a boy with big eyes,'" she remembers. But it turned out he could draw unusually well for a five-year-old and was a precocious reader. He'd play-fight with his sister Kristen after church and pretend they were characters in The Matrix. Within the family, his mother says, he's a confidant for the girls and a role model for the younger boys.

At SIUE he ended up majoring in art and minoring in drama. Afterward he took jobs as a substitute teacher for St. Louis Public Schools and at night continued writing plays and acting in shows at the Black Rep, among other places. In 2009 he was nominated for a Kevin Kline Award for "Best Supporting Actor" for his role in Gitana Productions' Complacency of Silence: Darfur.

One of King's early plays, Through the Eyes, was based on an incident in his mother's life. Rosalind was the oldest of sixteen children born within a fourteen-year span. "When my baby sister was ten months old," she remembers, "my father accused my mother of adultery. He threw her out of the house and made her sit out on the street. In court, the judge said, 'How could she have found the time?' Joel pointed out in his play that my dad was probably overwhelmed by all of us. But it wasn't until Joel did the play that I began to understand. When everybody sees things one way, Joel sees them another way."

Joel King's working life is an extension of his family. "We pray together, eat together, party together," says Olivia Neal, an old friend who plays a church lady in Real Life. Neal and her fellow cast members speak of King with an affection that borders on reverence.

No one has an unkind word to say about him — not even Nikki Spotts, his former supervisor at Shaw Elementary School, where King left his job as an art teacher after only a year because he was too distracted by his work in the theater. ("Everybody tries to support him," Spotts says. "He's truly been missed.") At rehearsal for Real Life, he pads up and down the Grandel's aisles in his stocking feet, watching the action onstage intently, absentmindedly munching a burger someone has gone out to get for him. No one in the cast or crew has ever known King to raise his voice.

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