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‘The Allure of Thug Life’: Alumnus Mélia Mills talks creative process, backstory

Mélia Mills performs her one-woman show, “The Allure of Thug Life.” Following its premiere at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this summer, the show will run in Berkeley through Nov. 11. (Courtesy of Broadway Photo/Video)

By Katy Nicholas

Oct. 28, 2023 2:04 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 30 at 9:16 p.m.

Hip-hop and musical theater are blending together in alumnus Mélia Mills’ self-proclaimed “hip-hopsical.”

In “The Allure of Thug Life,” the audience follows the coming-of-age story of a high school student who dreams of becoming a gangster rapper. Mills created and acts in the one-woman show, which she performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this summer. After winning various awards at the festival, including Best Musical, Mills is now performing in Berkeley through Nov. 11.

Mills spoke to the Daily Bruin’s Katy Nicholas about the creative process and backstory of the musical, as well as how she is testing the limits of theater, comedy and hip-hop.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

[Related: ‘Bubby’s Kitchen’: A one-woman musical about family resilience shows at UCLA]

Daily Bruin: What is “The Allure of Thug Life” about?

Mélia Mills: I’ve coined it a “hip-hopsical.” It’s about a teen girl who’s upper-middle class, and she wants to be a gangster rapper. She’s trying to go from riches to rags. Along the way she encounters bullying, boyfriends and bullets. It’s a wild ride.

DB: Why did you choose to make this a one-woman show?

MM: I have done a lot of character work. I got a scholarship from NBC to study at the Upright Citizens Brigade, I studied at the Groundlings, and I received mentorship from Anna Deavere Smith, so I just love to do character pieces. I’m always observing people and what makes them tick and what their quirks are, so I’ve done a whole bunch of separate character pieces. I play women and men in (this musical). Characters are always fascinating to me, and I just feel like I’m facile at playing different characters.

DB: How does this musical differ from a traditional coming-of-age story?

MM: Everybody’s story and journey is unique. Having hip-hop in it and having it be a girl’s journey with hip-hop, we don’t see that a lot. We see guys and their hip-hop or guys wanting to be rappers and the things that they’ve experienced. We don’t get a lot of the women’s perspective. I like taking up the space and showing women being strong and powerful and discovering their authentic selves. I’m always into women’s journeys, their coming-of-age story. That’s what I set out to do.

DB: How do you use hip-hop music as an aid for the plot?

MM: Each song is leading you to the next part of the show. I may do a song and you think, “That was just a song, no biggie,” and then there’s a callback to it later. And you hear the audience gasp because they’re like, “Oh my God, I understand what the setup was now. She spoke about it, and she didn’t think it would happen to her, and now it’s happening to her!”

DB: What emotions did creating this show evoke for you?

MM: (I relived) the journey of experiencing some of these trying times with my parents. It is a comedy, but it does go to dark places as well. Just coming out on the other side of what we experienced. And the audience goes on the roller coaster ride, too. It deals with socioeconomic issues and class issues, race issues, the political landscape – all that is tied into it. I don’t want to beat people over the head with it, so the messages are there, and they’re around the comedy, but you’re not being browbeat about them.

[Related: Q&A: Author Larry Duplechan on Hollywood history in memoir ‘Movies That Made Me Gay’]

DB: How did your time at UCLA influence the show’s creation?

MM: I had some wonderful professors there, and I remember having one professor, and he would say, “Every time we do something serious, you always make it comedic.” And I didn’t even know I was doing that. He was like, “You remind me of Carole Lombard,” and I was like “Who’s Carole Lombard?” I researched her, and she was a comedy actress. Then that made me go, “Maybe I should look into doing comedy.” Once he said that, I was like, “Maybe I should lean into this.” So after leaving UCLA, I did stand-up and opened for Dave Chappelle, and I did script and character development for Sacha Baron Cohen. I was like, “I’m gonna go full fledge into this,” and I’ve just been pretty much a comedy chick.

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