A young Lemon Andersen walks into a poetry reading. He’s just triumphantly concluded his jail sentence. He’s heady with freedom, so ready for change he’s followed a hipster’s invitation to the open mic. “I’m greeted with love,” Andersen says. “And a quick pat down.” He mimes the motions of a frisk with an edge of cool comedy. The intrusion hardly breaks his stride, shimmying down his back like a dance move. The action of his one-man theatrical autobiography “County of Kings” has admittedly whisked us to worse places this evening. We’ve watched his mother Mili die from HIV, we’ve seen his family variably incarcerated, and we’re wondering what happened to his fifteen-year-old fiancée, conspicuously absent since Andersen’s trial for coke dealing.
Andersen now vacates the narrator’s perspective as he glides between the voices of each successive slam poet, fading one’s twanging vowels into another’s explosive bilabials into a third’s vigorous, hand-swinging style. He returns to himself with aching indecision over signing up to speak. We listen as he hurriedly forces his thoughts out onto appropriated printer paper, feeling credibly closeted with him backstage though he’s presently front and center. “I don’t have a poem,” he says. “But I have an experience.”
“County of Kings,” performed at the Beverly Arts Center in Morgan Park, is itself a two-hour slam that vigorously articulates this experience at its every joint—stretching from Andersen’s earliest childhood to his earliest career. Andersen—now a Broadway performer, renowned spoken-word artist, and actor—frames his narrative with the night of his ultimate triumph, his acceptance of a tremendous and televised Tony. Yet the play doesn’t support reading as a reductionistic success story. “Kings” isn’t Andersen’s linear rocketing out of his brain-breaking home to fame, recognition, and an ambiguous ‘better life.’ The play’s one-man structure obligates Andersen to embody his tale’s interlocutors and to suggest his growth and gradual education through the evolution of his narrative voice. Both of these theatric demands intersect in a rich, messy, and humanistic day-in-the-life story. “Kings” accepts Andersen’s childhood for what it was, not as a launching pad for what will be, graffitied with messages of his prewritten and assured success. Each vignette he sketches isn’t code for social mobility or a clue to his future. They’re unique and validly meaningful moments all on their own—messed up or hilarious or both.
Andersen is quite literally an image of his mother; the first half of the play is dominated by his favorite fast-talking, no-nonsense, disco-loving Puerto Rican girl. This leads him to spend much time arms akimbo, making ample use of his hips, throwing his voice as believably as only one regularly chastised by it ever could. Her proud, beautiful cries of “That’s my boy!” are rendered by the boy himself, exquisitely genuine. We find Mili funny, and appreciate her presence. But scratch at the humor and you’ll find sad irony. Andersen’s absurdity rests on the knowledge that he was once—by grim necessity—a tough customer with serious street cred, for whom crossing genders and impersonating an unrelenting Latina would be impossible. An exasperated tirade over her son’s request to day trip to Coney Island jokes about food stamps and is peppered with urgent poverty. Its comedic value isn’t necessarily blackened by that aspect, however. The scenario remains nuanced. A mother tries to make the best from the worst, though the worst still looms, must be accepted, and moved beyond.
This river of hard-up exigencies murmurs throughout the play. Never far beneath any light moment is some reminder of reality’s hardships. Crawling on the bathroom floor, young Andersen finds a used heroin plunger and naively pockets it as a sweet gadget for an action figure. He looks up to the men in his life with cute, wide-eyed appreciation of their ability to hotwire a car in thirty-five seconds, asking them—in passing—where all the spots and scars on their arms came from. As he participates in a special ballet program, we laugh at his interpretation of the instructor who demands complete commitment. “He looked full in our eyes knowing that if he steps onto my block, his wallet would be going towards somebody’s takeout.” Andersen impersonates each figure he introduces; the story pulses with weirdly and unpredictably funny characters. He accepts and independently values the different aspects of each encounter. The fact that the teenaged Andersen finished a three-hundred page book is “revelatory” and, for the audience, gratifying. The fact that he and the barber subsequently celebrated with acid stamps is as equally worthy and tremendously hilarious. Encountering unfortunate and unfair truths, Andersen introduces no condemnation or bitterness.
When Andersen is finally called forward to the open slam poetry mic—fortunately scribbling down his last lines as his name goes out—the stage lights drop and his precise, crisp, and itchingly bug-eyed narration melts. “I cop a rookie artist’s plea,” he says before believably shedding years in the single remaining slightly-red spotlamp. He’s a husky-throated hard-ass who’s seen it all, but he must now shake off this brand new terror. As his first ever slam swells, Andersen grades back into his polished narrative tone. But the tenor of the words remains unchanged—the story since told continues to inform them. He doesn’t transcend his history with poetic talent; he steals poetics to provide an expressive vehicle for his past. “I’ll carjack a sonnet in thirty-five minutes, tops,” he brags. As an autobiography, “County of Kings” champions the best in a bad situation. Though we never see his ascent to national notoriety, we leave comfortable in the fact that he will carry Brooklyn with him along the way. “Kings” makes spectacularly good on its prologue’s punning commandment: “Watch me take my lemons and make the best goddamn lemonade!”