Lemon Andersen’s Truth and Poetry

“County of Kings” is a story of recognition and redemption
Lemon Andersen brings his one-man show, “County of Kings,” to Guild Hall next Thursday.

   There is a cat-like air about Lemon Andersen. Quiet, reflective, yet always aware. It is an air he developed growing up in the street and one he will take to the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall next Thursday, as he performs his one-man show, “County of Kings,” at 8 p.m.
    “County of Kings” is a story of recognition and redemption. Poetry. Truth. It begins and ends with Millie, Mr. Anderson’s mother, Puerto Rican, a junkie, sometimes recovering, sometimes not, but always loving her son to the day she died of AIDS.
    Mr. Andersen’s main male influence growing up was his stepdad, Chado. “Living with Chado, me and Peter were taught the finer things in life,” Mr. Andersen wrote in the book version of “County of Kings,” “like how to make a pen gun. When defending yourself, always go for the throat. And, of course, my favorite game of all, how-to-strip-a-car-in-broad-daylight.”
    Mr. Andersen’s words are written to be spoken. Yet, on paper, they read like a dream, and not always a pleasant one.
    They offered me a year
    or five years probation
    I take the year with no hesitation
    I’m not built for checking in
    Pissing in a cup, curfews
    Telling me what I do’s
    And what I does
    And where I’m supposed to be
    And where I was.

    “County of Kings” is about finding redemption in art — the Feld Ballet, poetry, and, finally, theater. The book itself is dedicated to the legendary acting teacher and longtime head of the American Place Theater, Wynn Handman.
    “Wynn taught me Clifford Odets,” Mr. Andersen said. “He taught me that you can write your story, about your people, and they will come.”
    It was Mr. Handman’s idea to pair the emerging artist with the director and dramaturge Elise Thoron. She was working with Mr. Handman in 2007 on a program called Literature to Life, in which works are adapted verbatim for the stage, to introduce to young people the joy and love of reading.
    “He has an ear for voices that are worth hearing,” Ms. Thoron said Saturday of Mr. Handman. “Lemon wanted to write a prose memoir. I looked at his poetry and said, ‘Wow wouldn’t it be great if he could do it as spoken word poetry?’ ”
    The two did just that, crafting the performance piece “County of Kings.”
    Mr. Andersen wears two hats for the production — the author’s hat and the actor’s — and Mr. Andersen and Ms. Thoron make sure that the two are never confused.
    Ms. Thoron holds Mr. Andersen to the task at hand. “All the time,” Mr. Andersen said last week. Mr. Andersen had rehearsed the piece with Ms. Thoron two days earlier. “ ‘You have to land that, because the writer wrote it,’ ” he said she told him. “She will never say, ‘You wrote it.’ She’ll always say, ‘The writer wrote it this way for a reason.’ ”
    “Truth. That is the search onstage,” Mr. Andersen said. “The search is to be in it. The words are in your heart, not your head anymore. Live. Exist. The writer is somebody else. That’s a long time ago. He wrote that play a long time ago,” he said.
    Asked if the actor ever sends the author a note, Mr. Andersen laughed. “Yeah,” he answered. “I’m sorry. I apologize for missing this word.”
    Ms. Thoron has worked extensively overseas. “I wanted to study directing in Russia,” she said. “The function of theater in that society is quite different.” The repertory model of doing theater is strong in Russia, as opposed to the U.S., where actors go from job to job. The idea and ideal of a repertory company, she said, “allows you to have a richer, longer relationship with the material.”
    The result of the collaboration between Mr. Andersen and Ms. Thoron is a lyrical yet story-driven piece of theater.
    But Mr. Andersen is more than a performer. He is a student, and, at the same time, a teacher. He goes to schools, and even prisons, to teach poetry and performance art. One place he teaches is at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York.
    “There are students that are already there, and there are students that we bring in,” Mr. Andersen said of the studio’s outreach effort. “We mix them up. There is a level of execution that we adhere to. Some kids come in because they are fans,” he said. Mr. Andersen first came into national prominence when he appeared in Russell Simmons’s “Def Poetry Jam” on HBO in 2002. “They follow my work and they [his students] want to do the same thing,” he said. “They are young artists. They want to take it to the next level. They don’t want to be a young voice anymore, they want to be a professional voice.”
    “What I get to do at Stella Adler that is really amazing is, I get to help these young people find out if they are writers, or performers, or both.”
    His trips to prisons or jails to teach can be problematic for him. It is a world he knows too well, having served time in both Rikers Island and Franklin County Jail in Ohio.
    “I was in Rikers Island a month ago,” Mr. Andersen said. “Teaching. I know these dudes. It is about gauging what the day is like for these men in prison. Every day is a new day for these men. You’re not going to be a miracle maker. That day, the tension is high. They don’t want to hear it. They just want to get out of the dorm, so they go to the auditorium, where you happen to be.”
    Choosing to stage “County of Kings,” even for one night, is a daring move for Guild Hall. Perhaps it is a harbinger of an attempt to reach a broader audience in the Town of East Hampton. Mr. Andersen was surprised to learn that nearly 50 percent of the students in some schools in the town are Latino.
    “Wow. They have a story to tell,” he said.
    “The American Latino is a demographic in itself, not just the Latino community, but the American Latino, the second, third, fourth generation of Latino in America.” It is a potential audience that is seldom seen in the John Drew Theater.
    Mr. Andersen sees an evolving world. “There is an essayist in Mexico who is hip-hop, or there is a Latino Chicano who doesn’t really know Spanish at all. They don’t even have an accent. That’s us. That is where we are going to now.”
    Mr. Andersen is excited to perform at the John Drew Theater, no matter who is in the house. “Theater audiences are so smart,” he said. He is, himself, the product of a biracial family (his father was Norwegian-American), and he doesn’t want his work to be pigeonholed.
    “I have a hard time with other playwrights who feel like it is always about ‘developing our own audience,’ where I kind of like the audience that is there,” he said. “When it comes to the theater, this audience is so important to us. If we can tell our stories, they have a better understanding of us, of that kid on the train.”
    Mr. Andersen and Ms. Thoron are working on a new play, “Toast.” It is backed by the Sundance Film Festival, where it received its first reading. Set in Attica State Prison in 1971, “Toast” is an eight-character play.
    For Ms. Thoron, next Thursday will close a circle in her life. When she was a child, she was raised, in part, in East Hampton.
    “I saw my first magic show at Guild Hall,” she said. Next Thursday, she will get to give back, as Lemon Andersen brings his own theatrical magic to the John Drew.