by Aimee Levitt
When we last checked in with Joel King, the playwright, director, advocate of urban theater and subject of the February feature story "Drama King" was preparing to move to LA to revise his latest production, Real Life, and take it on the road. He did the rewrites and made the cuts his producers requested.
Things got slow. For the first time in his life, he started to feel homesick. (His mother, Rosalind, says now she was secretly glad, but resisted the impulse to call and tell him to come home.) Providentially, he met the actress Kendra C. Johnson, who, most famously, co-starred with Mo'Nique in the the 2006 movie Phat Girlz and had a recurring role on the BET series The Game. She reminded him of home. They became good friends. Then Johnson left LA for a job in New York.
Earlier this summer, King returned to St. Louis to work on a play commissioned by a friend. It's called Issues of Love. It's exactly what it sounds like: An examination of different kinds of romantic relationships told through three interconnected families. Urban theater focuses on problem-solving, so the stories were going to be instructive. He sent out a Facebook invitation announcing auditions, but thought how nice it would be if Johnson could star in it. Five minutes later, he got a text message from her saying that she happened to be in St. Louis visiting her sister and would love to audition for his show.
King and Johnson told this story last Thursday night at a sneak preview of Issues of Love in the Syndicate Lofts downtown. The audience agreed that somehow, this was all meant to be, and settled in to watch a twenty-minute excerpt. The show will have its theatrical run this weekend, August 26 to 28, at the Grandel Theatre in Midtown.
"It's the most amazing thing you're going to see," promised the producer Dwayne Bess.
Like Real Life, Issues of Love is structured as a series of vignettes that follow its various interconnected characters through their relationship troubles. Wives sneak boyfriends out of the house early in the morning, women worry that their husbands will leave just like their fathers did and snoop through the men's cell phones, the husbands reinforce these worries by not coming home at night, the kids watch it all and everyone worries about their relationship with God. In the saddest scene, a woman looks overjoyed when her husband walks out on her with a promise that, unlike most nights, he'll be home later.
Unlike Real Life, which had more of a hip-hop feel, the songs here are heavy-duty ballads that require the singers to pour their hearts out onstage. (In the background, Bess sang along.) They're accompanied by a keyboard player and a drummer. Most of the cast is comprised of veterans of previous King productions, some of whom have been working with him for ten years or more.
At the Thursday preview, the show had been in rehearsal for a little more than a week, and some of the actors, including Johnson, were still carrying their scripts. The audience didn't mind a bit.
Afterward, Vickie Newton, an anchor for KMOV-TV (Channel 4) and a friend and supporter of King's, took the floor, carrying her dog Norman in her arms, to supervise a Q&A session.
"Love him up real good now," she told the crowd. "He's gonna need it if he goes back to LA or if New York ever wises up."
They did. The audience members only offered praise, which King tried to interpret as questions so he could reply with something other than "thank you." He settled for summing up the meaning of the play:
"If you find love, you're redeemed," he said. "If you don't, you're still looking for redemption. For urban theater, that's a new twist on problem resolution."