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Joel P.E. King’s 'Real Life' wrestles with life-and-death issues

A young man’s soul hangs in the balance in touring production of Joel P.E. King’s “Real Life” at West Coast Black Theatre Troupe.

Carol Saxton and Joel P.E. King — Courtesy photo
Carol Saxton and Joel P.E. King — Courtesy photo
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A touring production of Joel P.E. King’s “Real Life” is hitting the stage with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

Sporting a cast of 18, not 40, it’s a stripped-down version of King’s “hip-hopera.” But there’s nothing small about the show’s ambitions. It goes for the heart. And the stakes are no less than life and death.

Ultimately, it’s a battle for the soul of a young, African-American man named Ray (Joel King).

In high school, Ray was a straight-A student and a basketball star. His talents earned him a scholarship to Duke University. But Ray sabotaged his bright future, believing that only sellouts left the ghetto.

He deliberately threw the high school championship game and lost his scholarship. After that, Ray spent the last few years crashing in the house of his godly aunt and grandmother, dabbling in low-level drug deals, and neglecting his son. His slacker days end when he takes the fall for the murder of a young hip-hop DJ. In prison, Ray realizes he’s been repeating the destructive behavior patterns of his father, and his father before him. A window of redemption opens.

The action unfolds in the Obama administration on a ghetto street in St. Louis, Mo. The playwright paints a vivid picture of Ray, along with equally compelling vignettes of his neighbors. King’s “hip-hopera” is densely packed with characters, including a long-suffering shop owner, streetwalkers, street Christians, cops, representatives of the LGBTQ community, dealers, stealers, rip-off artists, a hip-hop artist and the soul-destroying character of the Street itself.

Occasional WBTT artist Joel P.E. King stars in “Real Life,” a “hip-hopera” he wrote and directed. Courtesy photo
Occasional WBTT artist Joel P.E. King stars in “Real Life,” a “hip-hopera” he wrote and directed. Courtesy photo

The multitalented King is the show’s composer, lyricist, director and lead performer. (He’s appeared before at WBTT, in “Knock Me a Kiss,” “The Color Purple” and other hits.) The man is talented — but it’s not a one-man show.

A platoon of talented local and national performers brings King’s slice of ghetto life together. There’s no shortage of technical wizards, either.

Choreographer Blaque Pearl dazzles your eyes with rapid-fire dance moves — a blur of motion, but always coherent. Emma Hersom’s costumes perfectly evoke the idiosyncratic individuals wearing them. Annette Breazeale’s imaginative set instantly transforms from the shelter of home, to a jail cell, to a convenience store, or anything else the action demands. Music director Brennan Stylez delivers the author’s dense tapestry of words and music. (Stylez also plays keyboard, with Dior Moore on drums, in the two-piece band backstage.)

The production is technically excellent. But it seems shallow to approach it in those terms.

Raleigh Mosely and Herman Gordon — Courtesy photo
Raleigh Mosely and Herman Gordon — Courtesy photo

“Real Life” is a cry from King’s heart. His play wrestles with life-and-death issues, from gun violence, to absent fathers, to media stereotypes. To those living outside the inner city, it’s a litany of numbing headlines. To those who live there, it’s as personal as it gets.

King’s story isn’t an intellectual exercise. You can’t feel its impact from an emotional distance.

Imagine your friend, lover, mother, father, daughter, son, or favorite artist might die at any moment. Because of a bad choice. Or just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine how that feels …

That’s the story.

That’s what King is going for.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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