Joel King takes Real Life from the street to the stage to the nation

Joel King takes Real Life from the street to the stage to the nation
Jennifer Silverberg

Joel King takes Real Life from the street to the stage to the nation

By six o'clock, curtain time, the Grandel Theatre is packed. It's the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and this is the second and last show in a one-day revival of Real Life, a musical drama written, produced, composed and directed by Joel P.E. King. Almost everyone in the audience, whose members range in age from small children to their grandparents, has some personal connection to King and his cast. For the past seven years, they've been going to King's plays, even back when they were one-acts put on in churches and barbershops. King has put their lives onstage.

King just turned 30. Real Life is his most ambitious show to date. The cast numbers nearly 40, including singers and dancers. There's a four-piece band. There are lights and a soundboard. There's an elaborate two-level set that King and his stage designer and roommate Ramiro Rojas pulled out of storage just five days ago and reassembled on the Grandel's stage with the aid of photos from Rojas' cell phone. Nobody had bothered to scrap the wood after the show's original run in August.

"We knew the minute we took it down, we'd be taking this show on the road," King said as Rojas and his apprentice, Alfonzo White, struggled to fit a doorway into place.

This wasn't just wishful thinking. Nobody, least of all King, could remember the last time a show by a young black St. Louis playwright went national, but last August it seemed like it might really happen for Real Life. King had gotten a few phone calls from investors, and two of them, one from Los Angeles, the other from Chicago, had agreed to fly to St. Louis to see it. This weekend's revival has been organized especially for them.

The matinee earlier this afternoon went well. As with all the performances in the earlier run back in the summer, the actors played to a full house, with a few people sitting in the aisles. They laughed at the jokes, they mmm-hmmmed in agreement with some of the wiser characters, shouted warnings to some of the less wise, and they walked out singing the catchy opening number: "Livin' the life in the ghetto, ghetto/Livin' the life in the ghetto, come on."

But this is the performance that really matters, and moments before the six o'clock curtain, the most important row in the audience, the one reserved for the investors, is empty.

At six on the dot, King leaps onto the stage. Tall, slender and light skinned, he wears his black hair close cropped and a scruffy goatee. His sweet smile and calm presence carry enough weight that the theater falls silent as soon as he opens his mouth to speak.

He's sorry for the delay, he tells the audience, but the investors are on the way. Can they wait a little while longer?

The crowd applauds. Of course they can!

"I can feel your energy already," King responds. "When the show starts, we'll need your energy. We've been doing a lot for the past two weeks; we've been working very, very hard physically to make this thing happen. Sit back, relax, relate. We're showing Real Life!"

He bows offstage to another round of applause.

The great appeal of Real Life is that its audience does relate. "When you're watching the play, it's like watching your life, your cousin's life, your best friend's life," says John Reed II, a dancer and actor who plays Juicy, one of the show's two flamboyantly gay characters.

In real life Reed attended Morehouse College and came to St. Louis to intern at the Black Rep, the city's — and one of the nation's — premier black theater company. But his lack of a ghetto upbringing doesn't mean the play fails to resonate. "It's like, 'Oh, wow, I'm not there, but I was almost there, that's what my cousin meant when he said...,'" Reed explains.

Most of Real Life takes place during one day on St. Louis Avenue on the city's north side, a neighborhood filled with hustlers, thieves, prostitutes, drug addicts, corrupt cops, a pair of hip-swinging queens and a gaggle of church ladies who try to bring them all to Jesus while the older folks look on and the convenience-store owner keeps the shop open late in case there's trouble.

The main character, Ray, has thrown away a promising future that included a basketball scholarship to Duke in favor of lying around his grandmother's house and halfheartedly pursuing a career in dealing drugs. It develops that Ray deliberately threw his final high school game (and in so doing threw away his scholarship) because he thought leaving the ghetto would make him a sellout. Unsurprisingly, Ray's plans to embrace what he believes is his fate — to be a hustler — go awry, and he ends up in jail for shooting a dealer. In the end he finds redemption when he realizes the importance of his relationship with the son he'd previously neglected.

Subtle it's not.

Then again, it's not intended to be. King calls his plays "urban theater," a relatively new form of black theater that differs sharply from the more traditional shows produced by companies like the Black Rep.

"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 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.

"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.

"[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.

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.

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.

"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."

"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.

This year the party goes on without Marvin, who has been transferred to the hospital at Jefferson Barracks, where his doctors believe he's on the mend. The house is packed with Kings and aunts and uncles and cousins, not to mention members of the JPEK family. In the kitchen Rosalind, wearing a purple apron emblazoned with sparkly letters that spell out "Lady Roz," supervises the mixing of giant bowls of punch and macaroni and cheese, as well as black-eyed peas to bring luck in the new year. Out in the living room, everyone's waiting. A little boy brandishes Rosalind's camcorder, aiming it at the front door. "What's taking Uncle Joel so long?" he moans.

King wanders in late, dressed in SIUE sweats and looking a little bleary from the previous night's revelry. ("I got home at one," his roommate, Rojas, tells the other guests, "and people were just starting to come over.") Immediately he's mobbed by a horde of kids fighting for the privilege of being picked up. He leads the crowd to the TV room, where he turns on Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" video and gets the girls to swing their hair around.

After all these months, he finally has a definite departure date: Saturday, January 8. Everything's arranged: the apartment in East LA, shipping his car, the final goodbye party at the downtown club Jade, right across the street from his apartment.

Then it's time for grace. Everyone gathers in the living room, joining hands to form an ungainly shape that bulges out into the hall and nearly to the kitchen. There's no question of who will lead.

"Lord, grant everyone success on their path in this new year," King says. "May you all stay lovely and kind."

As the grownups and teens meander toward the buffet line, the pint-size crew rushes back to take turns getting picked up by Uncle Joel. One little girl can't contain her excitement and pees on him.

King strips down to his wifebeater and makes his way to the bathroom to wash up, still followed by the kids and accosted every few steps by well-wishers.

"Ah well," he says. "That's showbiz."

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