Monday, November 22, 2010


Photos by Ma'atology

'Real Life' gets real again...and improves on it
by Marcus "Ma'at " Atkins

EDITOR'S NOTE: The street hip-hop pop opera "Real Life" was re-staged at The Grandel Square Theater last Sunday as the production had gone through a revision of the musical conventions and storyline since its staging last August (SEE


Director Joel P.E. King addressing the audience before the show.

Directed by East St.Louis native actor/director Joel P.E.King, "Real Life" had gone through a retooling so that the play’s tag “A Hip-hop Pop Musical” reflected as such. At its first staging, it appeared more like a gospel musical (more like "Godspell") with a hip hop character in the lead. But in its second staging, King added hip-hop dialogue for its main character, the young streetmonger Ray, (played by newcomer Aaron Vickers) as well as spoken word dialogue spouted by some of its supporting cast members.

One of the play's street scenes.

Told in “forward flashback”, “Real Life” ( inspired by King's involvement with urban raised students teaching at schools and most not foreseeing ever moving out the hood)dealt with its center figure Ray’s survival on the streets of St. Louis after a bad drug deal and how the community responded to its effects.

Another street scene with dance accompaniment.

"Real Life" came across as a musical styled stage version of “Do The Right Thing,” with an integral ensemble cast that played an instrumental part of the storyline.

Actors Danny Sanders and John Reed played flamboyant boys Juicy and Champagne. Here they are in a scene talking to a reporter about a recent murder on St. Louis Avenue.

From the "saving souls" church sisters (with standouts Cody Aaron and Olivia Neal), the drug dealer, the neighborhood watch store owner, Mr Johnson (played by Herman Gordon), the flaming purse toting homosexuals (played by comic effect by Danny Sanders and John Reed) , the prostitutes ( played by Alicia Moseley), the baby mamas, the hoochie mamas, the dirty cops, each member of the cast represented spicy urban gumbo. All stemming from one incident affecting the life of the community—in this case, the shooting death of a rap star in a club and its main character, Ray falsely accused of it and imprisoned.

Showstopper Willena Vaughn as Aunt Tee in a scene where her son, Ray (Aaron Vickers) is sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didnt commit.

It also had an outstanding musical soundtrack with diverse styles from fully diaphragmed gospel (especially Neal’s “Walk with Me”), to conversational rap (Vickers character and his best friend Tez played by Gold Wise rap-a-logues was a nice added touch) a showstopping Broadway styled number (Willena Vaughn’s Aunt Tee singing “Nigga Please”). Plus, mesmerizing and well choreographed dance numbers that personified the social ills of the community and its main characters.

Actor Goldwise played Ray's best friend, Tez.

There were, however, a couple of drawbacks in the play involving the revisions in the some of character's traits, scenes and an addition of certain characters. Absent was the frightening yet memorable rape scene by the dirty cop (played by L.A. Williams) and the prostitute, Tina (played by Moseley) and her reveal during a raping by the cop of having HIV as well as his revelation of having the same disease. In the revised version Tina did not have HIV (or so it wasnt disclosed in this version) but after getting felt up by the cop after getting arrested, she went to the Church Ladies to turn her life to Christ (the actual rape was stopped by a bystander with a gun.) This newer scene lost some of its original bite. A better impact would have been if both versions of the scene could have been blended (both characters having HIV during the rape and her turning her life to Christ) to incorporate a sense of surprise in an already effective scene.

Wise, Vaughn and Vickers in a scene.

Another drawback was the added drug fiend character (who was a bit aloof from the other characters in the play) who freaked out from freebasing and revealed to his fellow drugee that he had HIV during his out-of-head hallucinations. He and his girl buddy seemed to pop out of nowhere and didnt really add much to the plotline.

The Church Ladies (Sheneatha, Cody Aaron and Olivia Neal )trying to save a soul after stealing at Mr Johnson's store. They were the comic relief of the street hip hopera.

As far as the lead actors, Vickers, who played Ray, was very believable as the pretty boy street thug and ladies man with all the mannerisms of a hood boy and brought a refreshing depth to the character especially during scenes with his ailing yet spry Grandma (played by Autry Jackson) showing vulnerability and exuding compassion for the character.

Alicia Moseley played sassy prostitute, Tina, in a scene with Herman Gordon who played store owner Mr Johnson.

Goldwise as Tez, Ray’s goal oriented, level headed friend, played off well with Vickers “hot head” temperament. Vaughn's character as Ray’s caregiver Aunt Tee, didn’t have much density in her dialogue, but what kept her interesting was her incorporation of certain sista nuances and adlibs to make the character more colorful. The character, nevertheless, came to life when she went into introspective and sang about her pain and worries for the fate of Ray.

Aaron in a Jesus Loves You scene with one of the supporting actors in the play.

Of the supporting characters, Mosley as the prostitute was memorable showcasing comic flair and empathy . Also standouts were Aaron and Neal in the Church Sisters circle playing the Bible toting “Aunt Esthers” in the community as well as incorporating their big singing voices in the mix.

Vickers in a confrontational scene with his baby mama, Charlette (Kalonda Morgan) and her girls.

Members of the cast in a candleight vigil scene

The set is still intact--a gritty urban motif with working class houses and apartment buildings cluttered with litter and a neighborhood basketball court set in the center of the stage sprayed with graffiti setting the mood of the hood.

Overall, "Real Life" is ready for the national tour circuit. True, the material was steeped in standard characterizations of urban life, but the sum of its parts reflected a realism that was well represented. It was also good to see a sense of hope for the community after the lead character was redeemed after being institutionalized and reunited with his estranged son.

Autry Jackson who played Grandma is in a scene with Vickers who's character seeks her wisdom, one of the memorable scenes in the play.

Vickers and dancer/actress Black Pearl who played one of his baby-mamas friends in a club scene.

Vickers in a scene with an actor who played Willie, the local drug dealer who sets up Vickers character with a drug deal gone bad.

Jackson, Vickers and Vaughn in one of the compelling scenes of the play.

Neal in one of the musical highlights, "Walk With Me."

Rev. Cleophus Robinson Jr. played the minister.

Vickers in the parole scene with his lawyer.

The 40 plus cast at the curtain call.

Even though its three hours long (with intermission) "Real Life" kept your attention from the opening community congregating scene when Ray heads to prison to the Stompesque dance epilogue. It captivated with each passing minute. What’s also refreshing about ‘Real Life" was it gave each member of the 40 plus cast its moment in the spotlight (as its lead character Ray was merely part of the plot as opposed to the focus of it) showcasing the hustle and bustle of the community and its substantive parts within it.


1 comment:

  1. When I went to see it in August the story line was the commonly acknowledged one we all know regarding urban life-the easy pitfalls in the face of hard living circumstances. However, the difference was dramatically in how the story was brought to life through its medium using plot construction, dialogue, song & dance. Each was rich with personality, range of emotion, witty, powerful...The music was like a layered symphony-with hip-hop, gospel, soul, spoken word elements- every single piece memorable, and beyond formula. Genius was the difference.