County of Kings
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 9, 2009
I first became a fan of Lemon Andersen back in 2001, when he performed in a show called Slanguage at New York Theatre Workshop, in which he appeared with four other smart, energetic young hip-hop artists. The following season, Andersen was on Broadway in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam: the big time. Now he's brought his one-man play County of Kings to the Public's Newman Theatre. He's grown as a performer—his is a captivating and riveting presence. His poetry still thrills and surprises.
The story he has for us is an autobiographical one. He opens the play with the 2003 Tony Awards, where he and his collaborators won for Outstanding Special Theatrical Event for Def Poetry. From there he spins us back 20 years or so, to the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lived with his mother, step-father, and older brother, not quite impoverished but in no way privileged. His climb from those rough streets to the inside of a poetry cafe is detailed during the next couple of hours—a harrowing, often shocking tale recounted with humor, bitterness, and bravura.
Andersen portrays himself and a host of characters who were important to him as he grew up. We meet his mother, Millie, a sad, loving heroin addict, and her husband, who made his living stealing cars. Later we meet his first girlfriend, a pal who turned out to be a very bad influence during a brief stint at Eliot Feld's dance academy, a frighteningly large inmate at a penitentiary where he spent some time, and, perhaps most memorably, Cookie, the drag queen who lived upstairs from the apartment where he lived as a boy. Andersen animates all of these folks—a disparate lot, but all of them survivors in spite of their desperate circumstances. For the most part, they're sketched with love and insight.
The play is a rambling reminiscence, colorful but tough stories about a youth filled with poor role models and terrible choices, punctuated here and there with the vivid, image-filled poetry that has become, quite literally, his sustenance. Elise Theron, who developed the show with Andersen and is its director, keeps the pace from ever slackening and lets Andersen fill the space with his questing restlessness: scenes happen all over the stage and, thrillingly, in the auditorium as well.
What's missing is the lesson learned. Andersen emerges from a stint in prison with a profound understanding of the power of language—he tells us how amazed he was that he had actually finished a 300-page book (and enjoyed it). But the facts of life are that a convicted felon has trouble finding honest work in 21st century America, and Andersen never really explains how he got from them there to here, from that first moment of wonder at cracking open a book to the stage of Radio City Music Hall winning an award for his poetry. The cold realities of his harsh life are unfolded in County of Kings, but the most courageous part of Andersen's story remains untold in this play—the part where he figured out how to survive and, as we see, thrive as an artist in a world that's all too unwelcoming.
Nevertheless, this is a gripping work of theatre, well-served by a terrific minimalist set design by Peter Ksander and Douglas Stein and evocative lighting (Jane Cox and Lily Fossner) and sound (Rob Kaplowitz and Matt Stein). Andersen, in his early 30s, is still at the start of his career as writer and actor and it will be exciting to see how his talent will continue to grow and mature.