Kevin (Boosie Badazz) and Kelly (K. Michelle) in the opening scene of 'Thugs and the Women Who Love 'Em.'

Kevin (Boosie Badazz) and Kelly (K. Michelle) in the opening scene of 'Thugs and the Women Who Love 'Em.' (Jay Wiggins)

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If a Tuesday-night drama about women who can’t seem to pick loyal or law-abiding lovers sounds more like a reality TV plot than a new play, you’re not too far off the mark. Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em made its West Coast debut last night at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre featuring a star-studded cast of musicians and reality TV stars, including Boosie Badazz, Ray J, K. Michelle, Amina Buddafly, and Lyfe Jennings.

The play’s plot and title is inspired by Wahida Clark’s 2005 New York Times bestseller, Thugs and the Women Who Love Them, a novel about three women who attempt to detangle themselves from manipulative and violent partners. Producer Melvin Childs explained that he chose to adapt Clark’s novel to the stage because he felt it would resonate with younger African-American audiences who don’t typically go to the theater.

Amina Buddafly as Candace in 'Thugs and the Women Who Love 'Em.'
Amina Buddafly as Candace in ‘Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em.’ (Jay Wiggins)

“My biggest thing is I’ve seen the products that have been put on for us and they haven’t evolved. As far as black folks are concerned, we got gospel plays,” he said over the phone. However, the production’s rollout has not been without controversy: In a lawsuit filed this summer, Clark alleged that Childs did not obtain the rights to use her work, a claim he has denied in previous interviews.

Despite the pending lawsuit, the musical stage production is currently on a national tour smartly cast with familiar faces from music and reality entertainment. Ray J, K. Michelle, and Amina Buddafly are all central cast members in various editions of the successful reality TV franchise Love & Hip Hop. And though it’s not uncommon for theater productions to anchor their appeal in stars from other sectors of the entertainment world, Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em is sometimes more reminiscent of a reality TV drama than a cogent storyline extracted from Clark’s novel. Although its plot is somewhat lacking, the play’s most original element is its stars’ brief but masterful musical performances.

Kelly (K. Michelle) and DeJuan (Ray J).
Kelly (K. Michelle) and DeJuan (Ray J). (Jay Wiggins)

At the Paramount, the multi-generational audience — who took the occasion of this play to dress up — danced and sang along to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and other summer mega-hits blasting through the theater. The curtains finally opened to Kelly (K. Michelle) singing wistfully over the phone to her incarcerated lover Kevin (Boosie Badazz). The first act introduced the audience to DeJuan (Ray J), who romantically pursues Kelly. Like most of the other women in Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em, she dismisses his advances at first. But it doesn’t take long — or much — to persuade her to abandon her instincts.

At a time when complex and authentic portrayals of black womanhood are flourishing in HBO’s Insecure and box-office hits like Girls Trip, Childs and the rest of the production could have taken the time to flesh out their central characters further. But instead, the women in Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em came off as one-dimensional and were often rushed off stage for the next scene. Jackie Michaels delivered the most compelling performance as Shawn, but the actress barely had enough time and space to fully delve into her character’s intentions and motivations.

The second act didn’t do much to advance the story, and the dialogue devolved into serving mostly as a break between the show’s standout musical moments. Mic problems also plagued key conversations which the cast commendably handled with ease and humor, and the audience was helpful and forgiving.

Shawn (Jackie Michaels) confronts Devon (Jamal Woolard).
Shawn (Jackie Michaels) confronts Devon (Jamal Woolard). (Jay Wiggins)

The central cast members shone in their solo musical numbers, which were more or less seamlessly integrated into the play. After a tense conversation with DeJuan, Kevin switched to Boosie, momentarily breaking character, for an abbreviated performance of his 2006 hit “Set It Off” — the audience screamed in jubilance. Though K. Michelle was given the most solo singing opportunities, Michaels’ cover of Melanie Fiona’s “It Kills Me” was the most captivating R&B performance of the night. The peak performance, however, came when Ray J sang a passionate, unwavering rendition of his 2005 hit, “One Wish.”

Ray J’s involvement is an optimistic sign for Childs and his production. The actor and singer has created a blueprint for protracting an entertainment career; he’s effortlessly navigated sitcoms, R&B, and most recently, reality TV. His public persona is occasionally reprehensible (he famously pushed his wife into a swimming pool after a tense argument on an episode of Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood) but he delivers his reality TV performances with a knowing wink — assuring the audience his behavior is in service of their entertainment. That’s the value that drives the wildly successful franchises of reality TV, from which much of the cast of Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em is plucked.

But if Childs is hoping that theater will be the next stage where audiences can be mesmerized by exaggerated proxies for interpersonal relationships, his production will need to strengthen its narrative.

‘Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em’ runs for a second night on Oct. 5 at the Paramount Theatre. More information here.

‘Thugs and the Women Who Love ‘Em,’ a Play That Feels Like Reality TV 4 October,2017KQED Arts