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.
“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.
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.