Lemon Andersen's hustle and work ethic are undeniable. From his work in Universes and the Tony Award-winning Def Poetry Jam to his scenes in Inside Man and The Soloist, co-starring with Denzel Washington and Robert Downey Jr. respectively, Andersen's affability comes through in a way that distinguishes him from other artists from the spoken word genre. Thus, limiting him to just his work as a spoken word performer does an injustice to his work in his one-man show, The County of Kings. Certainly the bombast and grit common within urban spoken word shows up here, but this show sets a new standard for urban-inspired theatre in the way only someone with Lemon's background can do.
The County of Kings takes us on the incredible journey of this Brooklyn-born Boricua navigating through the slums, trying to find his own definition of manhood, delving into issues of race, urban politics, gang activity, and economics in one fell swoop. He effortlessly melds hip-hop from the Golden Era ('87 – '92) and the early Gangsta Era ('93 – '95) with his own wordplay and steady, syncopated rhythms. At once gritty and tender, Anderson displays all the characteristics of a certified veteran of his craft, in a performance arena that's often sullied by verbal glitz and lyrical shallowness. His words ring true to the experiences felt by those who've grown up in New York City and the other urban areas where the proliferation of viral syringes, AIDS orphans, rotating jail sentences, and disappearing fathers is all too familiar.
As for the play itself, I found myself particularly enthralled with its tightness. I've watched many plays and musicals in my lifetime, but not many one-man / woman shows like this. It's clear that Andersen and his developer / director Elise Thoron meticulously created a production that sought to contribute to the legacy of the Public Theater and give the audience its money's worth. Frankly, the script was practically flawless in terms of execution and accessibility. The character development, even with a lack of costumes and real setting changes, shook almost everyone in the audience. He could at once play God, his mother Millie, his girlfriend Lillie, and the other dozen or so characters in even tempo.
The one drawback in the play came when some of his punchlines didn't fall well with the crowd, a rather diverse group of young urban professionals and older Public Theater denizens. While other crowds may have appreciated him pulling out a syringe he found under his parents' bed and saying "That's dope!" (I certainly laughed), others totally missed it. I also wondered how much audiences might benefit from having heard more of the hip-hop music Andersen references, but that's a small matter. In the end, the fluid delivery of his past and present material is refreshing and challenges the status quo for one-man shows.
In the discussion following the play, when asked about the process of his poetry, Andersen mentioned how, while everything is an act on stage, he believes in everything he does up there. Hopefully, after you've watched the show, you will, too.
County of Kings opened at the Public Theater on Sept. 29 for a six-week run.