Washington Park playwright wants to save lives with art

For the News-DemocratSeptember 12, 2013 

With his musical drama "Real Life," playwright Joel P. E. King is hoping to combat violence through creativity, comedy and reality. He describes the play as a wake-up call. He wants to motivate through art.

The prevalence of crime and an apathetic attitude has become all too common in the inner-city, he said. "The musical is about inner-city life, politics and faith, and it mirrors our nation's urban crisis."

The musical will be performed at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Washington University's Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsythe Blvd., St. Louis.

Written, composed, directed and produced by King, "Real Life" is a modern day "West Side Story" that centers around an urban youth named Ray, who is conflicted between street life and his faith. Once an A students with the potential to become a star basketball player, he allows himself to be defined by his inability to win a crucial game, and perceives this missed opportunity as his only escape out of the ghetto.

"Ray's struggle resembles that of many young men in the inner cities of America trying to escape their environment. His abandonment of ambitions and an adopted mentality of failure exposes the paradigm of urban American, and its ability to stifle growth and self-development," King said.

The play takes place in one day in St. Louis city's north side, on St. Louis Avenue. A large cast portrays a variety of neighborhood folks -- thugs, prostitutes, families and a group of church ladies.

The show has been presented several times in St. Louis, written in 2007, then premiered in 2010 and revived last year, both at the Grandel Theatre. King said he has made some changes, inspired by the Trayvon Martin case. He is intrigued by relationships and how people respond to life, particularly the problems facing African-American males.

"We have to accept personal responsibility. We can't keep blaming others. What are we not doing or what are we doing that we find ourselves in situations," he said. "We all are minus something in our lives. The answers are what I'm looking for -- why are people not living the lives that they wanted. We have to connect the dots, but we have to figure out what the dot is."

King, who grew up in Washington Park, was compelled to write the play after substitute teaching in St. Louis Public Schools. One day a student exclaimed that she wanted to kill her father. Taken aback, he dug deeper. She said her father had raped her. It was the response of the class that stunned King -- no reaction. "Nobody said anything. Where is the disconnect?"

King is the seventh of 11 children born to Marvin and Rosalind King, who have been married more than 40 years and now live in Belleville. King remains close to his parents and nine siblings -- his oldest sister died in 1982. All 10 kids went to college or into the military.

As a child, he drew and read voraciously. A member of Lincoln High School's last graduating class in 1998, he earned a bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 2003 with a major in studio arts and a minor in both music and drama.

He wrote his first play when he was 12 -- about the Rapture. At 16, he wrote another one. In 2003, he finally decided to produce a play, and it was performed at his uncle's church, the Gateway Area Bible Fellowship Apostolic Church in East St. Louis.

He discovered through art he could have some impact. "It became my ministry," he said. He believes "Art Saves Lives" -- that is a statement he uses on press materials for his shows.

"I just do what I love to do, and didn't realize it would have such effect on the audience. To have people come up to you and tell you that it is going to change their life -- that is priceless," he said. "I love people, and I love to see them healed."

He has modeled some of his characters on his family, including his mother. "Some of the things she endured as a child, and healed from -- I wanted to emulate them. She and my dad are amazing people," he said.

Currently dividing his time between Atlanta and St. Louis, he hopes to get enough funding to take "Real Life" on a national tour. He has upcoming presentations in Atlanta and Chicago in hopes of achieving that goal.

One of his biggest fans is his executive producer, Andrea Kelly of Chicago, a choreographer and stage producer, who helped bring the stage play to life. She appears on the V-H1 reality television series "Hollywood Exes." She was married to R&B singer R. Kelly for 12 years and has three children.

She understood the dynamics of having to rise above the conditions that trap so many inner-city dreamers. "This play is so important to our current situation. You have to do better when you know better," she said. "It's an experience. It is heartfelt -- emotions are stirred up."

Kelly doesn't mince words about current problems in the African-American community. "We all have choices. We have to invest in our communities, and the arts are a good way to do that."

They met through a friend who took him to see the launch of Kelly's dance company, then she hired him to be the stage manager for her shows. He wound up acting and making costumes, too. "We are kindred spirits. We are best friends for life. She is an amazing woman," he said.

"I am grateful and humble for the opportunities that I have had," King said. "As a child, I learned "Do Unto Others" and that's been the model for how I live my life."

For more information, visit www.jpek-thearts.com

At a glance

The musical will be performed at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Washington University's Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsythe Blvd., St. Louis. Tickets are $27.50 for balcony and $22.50 for floor seats. A special discount performance is set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, where students and seniors can obtain tickets for $7 (cash or credit card). You can purchase tickets at www.jpek-thearts.com.

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