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County of Kings

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

County of Kings
Lemon Andersen
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Poets, apparently, can be found anywhere, if you look hard enough and they look long enough. Who would imagine, for example, that New York’s drug-riddled Puerto Rican projects could produce as clearly romantic a soul as that possessed by Lemon Andersen? Not that the 34-year-old Andersen hasn’t known plenty of pain - he lost his parents to the ravages of AIDS, and has been in jail more than once - but success has always been defined less by what your circumstances are than by how you escape them. And as Andersen explains in his thoughtful and empowering one-man show County of Kings, now playing at The Public Theater’s Newman Theater, success for him was a long time in coming.

Growing up with a mother (named Millie, whom he describes as “five feet of tough tenderness”) who was a recovering heroin addict and a father who was barely involved in his upbringing, Andersen learned the language of the streets long before he strove to hone his rhythmic English. This included the typical coming-of-age topics that generally infuse autobios of this nature: trying to live on the straight and narrow (including taking ballet lessons) and failing, awkward sex romps with girls with violently excitable mothers, and drug dealing with a year-long Rikers Island climax (as well as a coda in Ohio). Andersen’s show, which has been developed and directed by Elise Thoron, and first appeared at this year’s Under the Radar festival at The Public, makes no attempt to hide from - or excuse - the urban clichés from which its author’s story derives. So if you think you’ve seen and heard this all before, you probably have.

But what sweetens those sour notes is Andersen himself. Though muscular and dark-browed, wearing oversized jeans and a backward-turned baseball cap, his refined voice and storytelling style offer no hint that they’re emanating from a man who not long ago was a cash-strapped ex-con. Whether rhyming outright or speaking in a more traditional straight-dialogue fashion, Andersen compels you to listen with a shoulder-shaking bravado tinted with a desperate need for acceptance. His speech rings with a wavering musicality that slides from forte to piano, often within only a syllable, dark undertones of pain being suppressed by the floating light of hope. His hand gestures and pointed-forward head motions are designed to appear threatening, but can’t mask the fear lying just behind the eyes, the deep-down understanding that he no longer spiritually belongs to the world that bore him.

Andersen dances through these contrasts with consummate skill during his 100-minute show, always challenging your preconceptions of him and of others like him, while never dispelling the notion that they’re very often correct. Everything about his appearance and delivery live up to what he says at one point about New York: “Behind this city there is a history of struggle. Beautiful struggle.” And just as New York is defined more by how it moves than what it is, so too does Andersen understand there’s more to him than mere description can relate: “Big words don’t define passion,” he intones, but only after he’s come to believe that himself.

It took him until June of 2003 to achieve that goal. That’s when the better life was crystallized for him on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, when he and the rest of the company of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway accepted their joint award for Unique Theatrical Experience. In that show, Andersen rhymed a surprising story of how a black stoker escaped from the sinking Titanic; it’s now abundantly clear where Andersen got his inspiration. In his show now, Andersen marvels at how Times Square was closed down for him and the rest of the Def Poetry Jam cast to perform a number on the Tony broadcast, and he was able to stand in front of the onlookers and millions of home viewers not as a peasant, but as royalty. That may have been the first time, but if County of Kings is any indication, it won’t be the last.


County of Kings
Through November 8
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater