"He puts his heart out there for everyone to see," says John Reed II. "I don't see a lot of directors who do that. The first time I did a show with him was in the meeting room at the Syndicate Lofts downtown. There was no parking. Joel went out of his way to get change for the meters and get our parking validated. He was trying in his bones to make that happen. Because of that warmth, I'm here now, hanging lights."

Reed's not the only one. At rehearsal makeup artist Cynarra Rodriguez concocts special vitamin blends to keep her director healthy. "He needs B's and C's," she says, shaking a bottle filled with orange liquid. "Sometimes he drives himself so hard, he doesn't stop to replenish."

Ramiro Rojas, the set designer, considers himself an extension of King's brain. "I have to read his mind," he says, "to get the color of his ideas. Joel's mind is a very complex place to be."

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.

"He's a chameleon," adds Alicia Sunshine Ghabo, the choreographer for Real Life, who has known King since high school. (She turned him down when he asked her to the prom.) "It's from coming from a big family. You have to be flexible to deal with different people. You need that versatility in dealing with different personalities, backgrounds and beliefs."

If anyone resents King for planning to go off to LA alone, they aren't saying. "We all believe in him," says Rojas. "We may not understand where he's going, but we know he's going somewhere high. All the people who work with him know this is something big. I can see him doing something for TV or the big screen. Maybe not Real Life, but something else."

"St. Louis has a lot of talent," observes Freeman Bosley Sr., the long-time St. Louis alderman whose district encompasses St. Louis Avenue and who arranged for the city to issue a proclamation declaring the Friday before the performance "Joel King Day." "But young folks have to leave and go someplace else. There's a lid on how far you can go in St. Louis."

The final performance of Real Life concludes to a standing ovation from the packed house. "It did my heart so much justice," King will say later, "that everyone was willing to wait around and stay for the entire show."

The Monday after Thanksgiving, it's official: LA investor Chasity Clark has agreed to finance a five-city tour. A real estate agent and entrepreneur who is looking to start investing in plays, Clark is married to Danny Clark, a New Orleans Saints linebacker whose eponymous charitable foundation raises money to help kids in underfunded neighborhoods.

Al Manerson, a playwright and mutual friend of King and Clark sent the latter some video of Real Life, along with the script. "I thought it was a great fit," says Manerson. "It was a great play. I was very impressed with what he was able to put together, with the passion he had in his writing, how he got so much passion and energy from the cast when so many didn't have [acting] experience."

Says King: "It's been quite a ride." Now his days are full of contract negotiations and rewrites.

"This is the fun part for Joel," Clark says. "He'll have to take his baby and break it into pieces!"

Clark intends to transform Real Life into a series of plays that tell the stories of secondary characters from the original work — such as Tina, the prostitute who finds Jesus; or Tez, Ray's best friend who's starting a new job on the day Ray gets arrested. "With Real Life there's so many sociological issues that impact the community," Clark explains. "The beautiful thing is that there's no end. We can take this and develop it on so many different levels."

Clark declines to say how much money she intends to invest.

She plans to begin touring as soon as late spring or early summer, anticipating that the project will last anywhere from a year to eighteen months. The show will visit five cities and play what Clark describes as "small venues — under 2,000 seats." That figure dwarfs the Grandel, which, at 450 seats, is the largest venue King has ever played. The script will be customized for each city. Clark envisions the production as an educational show and wants to include high schools and university campuses on the tour.

One city Real Life will visit is St. Louis, and that stop will provide the original cast and crew with their only opportunity to work with King again; Clark plans to use local actors and crew members when the show goes on the road.

King promises he'll return to St. Louis often, but he's not sure he'll live here again.

"I have mixed emotions," says Rosalind King. "I'm happy for him. He needs to do what he needs to do. But thank God for Skype and Facebook. Cell phones and prayer: Those are the ways to reach out and touch someone."

Every New Year's Day, Rosalind and Marvin King host an open house at their home in Belleville, where they relocated several years ago from East St. Louis. There's a buffet dinner and what Rosalind calls a "lifting" — in lieu of Christmas presents, the family pools funds to give financial help to one member who's especially in need. Everybody's encouraged to take home leftovers; it's Rosalind's way of remembering the neighbors who gave her help when she needed it.

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