"I have stories I wanted to tell," says musician SaulPaul.
The 43-year-old rapper and spoken word artist started doing music for children about five years ago, but "SaulPaul’s Alien Adventure" is his first musical with the story and music coming from him.
The musical is on stage at Scottish Rite Theater from now until March 1.
SaulPaul, whose name comes from the transformation of Saul into Paul in the Bible, has had his own transformation. He grew up in Houston, raised by his grandmother, then spent two years in prison for burglary, counterfeiting and credit card fraud before going back to school, graduating from the University of Texas and beginning to make documentaries and music.
Last year, the creators of "Rap Unzel," an urban retelling of the Rapunzel story, turned to SaulPaul to use his music for the Scottish Rite Theater production. They wanted to use some existing music; soon, he was creating new music for the production. "Before I know it, I’m in the play," he says.
He says he was hesitant at first. "When I create music, that's my baby; that's my child. I don't let anyone babysit," he says.
Even though he was hesitant, he met with the producers of "Rap Unzel," he says. "I did a read-through of the play itself. It was phenomenal. ... I got to see their heart. We had shared goals."
After that experience, SaulPaul wanted to create his own stories for a family audience.
The story is of Lil SP, a child not unlike SaulPaul himself, but, SaulPaul says, Lil SP’s childhood is the childhood he wished he had. Lil SP discovers a magic Walkman that contacts an alien from space. They develop a friendship and go on adventures, traveling back in time and to different places throughout the universe.
The story delivers lessons in different people’s cultures. Central to the story is Lil SP’s grandmother, who shows the audience her story of fighting for civil rights. She sings the "Negro National Anthem."
That’s just one of the interwoven stories. Lil SP also has diverse friends, and they go to Mexico and South Africa. There are raps in English, Spanish and Zulu.
The common thread is the self-doubt that follows people.
"When you have a story, there's an antagonist," SaulPaul says. Here, "the antagonist is self-doubt."
The grandmother is encouraging Lil SP to conquer his fears and his self-doubt and perform in a talent show. The audience becomes part of the musical as they become the audience for the talent show.
Like "Rap Unzel," "SaulPaul’s Alien Adventure" does bring a different voice to the stage, but SaulPaul says he doesn’t want it to "become a thing." He wants it to be natural.
With everything he does, he says, the goal is to show positive images of lots of different people.
SaulPaul says creating works, whether it’s music or musicals for children, isn’t about dumbing down his material. In fact, it’s the opposite. Just like the expression "if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere," SaulPaul says, "if you can make it at a Title I middle school, a middle school in the hood, you can make it anywhere. The kids don't know you, and they don't care."
SaulPaul says with theater it’s not about your talent, it’s about your experience and the experience you provide. "That’s the magic sauce," he says.
"I didn’t know that theater was for me," he says, but what he loves is that "kids are screaming back and talking back. You flow with it."
SaulPaul will take this production on the road this summer before coming back to Austin in the fall. In the summer, he’ll be offering a camp and continuing the SaulPaul All Stars, which mentors kids to get them comfortable with performing onstage.
He has many more Lil SP stories to tell and hopes to turn them into a series through streaming services like Netflix. A series would allow him to show 20 different diverse stories, and that’s the key: to consistently put diverse characters in front of kids.
"I did not get to grow up cultured," he says. "I don't think I ever saw a play. It was at church or school. I didn't get these experiences."
One of his goals is "to create these experiences for underrepresented, at-risk, disadvantaged — whatever title you get on it — kids like me."