Lemon Andersen loves rules. And he also loves to break them.
It’s something he does when he writes poetry, toying with language and literary devices. But it can also apply to his life. He came from a Brooklyn-hood background — complete with drugs, AIDS, and jail. And instead of becoming another recidivist statistic, he got on a stage and won a Tony for his work with Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.
That job also landed him on the HBO series, which ran from 2002-2007. When the show came to an end, Andersen had a recognizable voice, but he didn’t know exactly what to do with it. “I wasn’t a slam poet,” Andersen says. “That’s not something I was into, but I love the world of poetry, and it did a lot to me. It put me on Broadway, and it’s given me opportunities to go around the world, but for some reason all that stopped.”
He doesn’t think he’s suited to the world of poetry and how that market sells its artists. “Everything is based on ethnicity and culture,” he explains. “That’s not really how I fit, because I’m a Norwegian Puerto Rican from Brooklyn. So I’m not selling out Black History Month. I’m not selling out Hispanic Heritage Month on the college circuit. I don’t fit in that world.” He had to figure out what was next.
At first, Andersen toyed with the idea of writing a memoir. He had a manuscript and shared it with a friend who taught a theater class who told him he should turn it into a performance. It wasn’t a stretch; being on Broadway had given Andersen a passion for theater, and he’d had other acting jobs, including small roles in The Soloist and Inside Man. With help from developer/director Elise Thoron, he turned that memoir into County of Kings: The Beautiful Struggle. The show blends hip-hop and poetry and tells the story of the battles he fought and the people he met along the way to becoming who he is now.
Andersen was under a lot of pressure to prove to the art world that he could stand on his own as a solo performer. Luckily, the challenge was something he thrived on. “Pressure works for me,” he says.
He got a good response from a reviewer at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, where he performed County of Kings for the first time, but it was only a mention in an overview of the entire event and not enough to help the show set itself apart.
Then Spike Lee showed up.
Lee and Andersen had worked together in the past (Andersen acted in a number of Lee’s projects, including She Hate Me and Sucker Free City), and they had mutual friends. Lee was at the festival celebrating the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, and, after seeing County of Kings, he decided to back it. “When Spike Lee put his name on it, money wasn’t hard to get. As a matter of fact, we were turning it away,” Andersen says. “Once that was over, then it became organic, which is what it is now. It’s more about showing up and being beautiful instead of playing cards.” After that, the show got picked up by the Public Theater.
Andersen thinks that in most solo shows, people are trying to put on a talent show. He’s not trying to prove his chops. He thinks his art is bigger than that.
“What happens to me is that I start to play with this thing I love the most, which is how things sound in the ear. I think for me the voice is everything. The voice is the rhythm. It has a tone to it, and it’s an instrument,” he says.
There’s a musicality and a pace to what he does, and he thinks maybe it’ll be fresh to the ears of his Charleston audience. Every performance is different, and for Andersen the challenge is the endurance required by it all. For Spoleto, he knows how he’ll go into his first show and how he’ll go into his last, preserving the energy for all of the four nights. “I think the characters just need to breathe certain days certain ways,” he says. “Because there’s a physicality in these people that I play and the story that I’m telling, because there’s also a poet telling a story, so there’s breath in words.”
Andersen works hard at not playing into a hip-hop or poetry stereotype. All he asks for is respect from the audience, and he’ll give them mutual respect in return. “It’s not about copping a plea. It’s about art. Even though it’s a story about my life, I’m not up there trying to be pitied.”
Even when he was struggling as a child, Andersen was exposed to art, something he addresses during his performance. In his show, you’ll see what happens when you place an urban kid in an art environment and watch him grow. “When you go to New York City and you see this kid on a train and he’s angry at the world, maybe you didn’t know that this was really going on in his life, and (he’s) not being given a shot to just say something, or being told that (he) can say something. Maybe if you placed art in (his) life, then that energy has finally found freedom.”