If Eminem thinks he’s got anything to bitch about, he should check out Lemon Andersen’s County of Kings. Compared to Lemon’s childhood in the projects at 24th St/4th Ave in Sunset Park, Marshall Mathers lived an almost storybook life on 8 Mile. But whereas Eminem has not stopped ruining his health and career with mordant self-pity, Lemon is actively fulfilling his mission to take life’s lemons and “make the best goddamned lemonade,” as he so masterfully demonstrates in County of Kings, which ends its six-week run at the Public Theater on November 8.
After a pulverizing rap prologue about going from Rikers to the Tonys, the poet opens his one-man show, not with a diatribe against his archenemies, but with his fondest childhood memory—doing the Hustle with his mother Mili at Coney Island to her favorite song, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” By the way he moves as he recounts that day, it’s clear he’s not exaggerating when he says brothas cleared the concrete when they noticed this blond ten-year-old grooving better than any boardwalk bad-ass. Though he goes on to describe his childhood home in Apartment D5 as a combination stolen-car-parts garage, shooting gallery and AIDS mausoleum, Lemon held fast to that peak experience on Coney Island, no matter how tragic life turned.
Ever since James Frey was caught fibbing in A Million Little Pieces, memoirists have had to elide their hardscrabble lies or at least dress them up in something close to truth. But according to Andersen, “If anything, I had to water [my story] down.” In fact, Andersen never would have written or performed County of Kings if friends and mentors like Spike Lee and Wynn Handman of the American Playhouse Theater hadn’t urged him to put his personal saga of poverty, crime and redemption on stage. To Anderson’s mind, his own story was no more valuable than anyone else’s, yet it’s this same spirit of humility that makes County of Kings a mature, universal drama rather than just another off-putting gangsta invective.
Lemon, 34, was born Andrew Andersen, son of Milagros “Mili” Quiñones from Puerto Rico and Peter Andersen, a Norwegian-American from Bensonhurst. (Latino kids called him “Lemon” or “Lemonhead” on account of his once-spanking blond Nordic hair.) Although his older brother is also named Peter, they had different fathers, both of whom left Lemon’s mother before their sons were toddlers. Mili met Lemon’s father at a methadone clinic and, when the analgesic wore off, they started shooting heroin together in the oft-referenced Apartment D5. After Peter Anderson left, it didn’t take Mili long to rebound with another user, their stepdad Charo, who helped make D5 even more of a drug den.
Perhaps the most effective and touching feature of Lemon’s voice in County of Kings is how, even when reenacting the most gut-wrenching scenes of his autobiography,he sustains a childlike wonder, undiluted by bitterness. Lemon channels his early community’s personae—including Mili and Charo’s sordid social club—with equal measures of parody and compassion. Where he could have easily lambasted his parents as feckless junkies, he instead portrays them as flawed, desperate people who were fiercely protective of him and his brother even while swimming against the tide of addiction: “I was Mili’s golden boy…and Charo cared for me and Peter like we were his right and left nuts.”
Not that Mili and Charo were spending their nights dog-earring pages of Conscious Parenting Magazine. With a firm balance of pathos and humor, Lemon relates how Charo would sometimes discipline him and his brother with a belt that doubled as his tourniquet. Discarded syringes became Lemon’s water toys. He remarks on how Mili was the best dealer in the building while Charo made ends meet by stripping cars: “I love waking up and finding car parts in the living room ’cuz that means we is going to Chuck E. Cheese.” But it wasn’t all fun and games, and through the cracks of his hard humor, trauma finds room to swell. Like the night Lemon witnessed that Mili, stranded in a heroin haze, had “swallowed her tongue like a Vienna sausage,” and Charo had already nodded out beside her, with a needle in his arm. Lemon the raconteur deftly slips between the addicts, Little Lemon and Cookie—the drag queen next door who he had to go get to call an ambulance—throwing his characters into full tragicomic relief with his dead-ringer impressions.
One reason Lemon didn’t turn out as homophobic as other boyz in the ’hood could be that he was scapegoated and ostracized in ways similar to gays during the first series of AIDS outbreaks in the 80s. When word got out that Mili had the virus, parents publicly warned kids to steer clear of Lemon. Later, news surfaced that Charo and Lemon’s real father had also been infected. After having to fight his way through school every day, Lemon would make frequent trips to Lutheran Medical Center where he’d watch his mother waste away to a skeleton. His one comfort was being able to learn ballet at Feld Ballets/NY, where he was accepted after wowing admissions with a break-dance audition: “I didn’t mind looking like a fairy in a t-shirt and tights, when D5 had no heat, I had ballet moves to keep me warm.”
Unfortunately, such solace was short-lived. Under the influence of his brother and other small-time crooks, he’d already turned to petty theft and when he and his homey raided rich kids’ lockers, Feld Ballets/NY slammed its gates on him for good. Lemon’s criminal activity would skyrocket after he became an orphan at age 15.
With blunt honesty, Lemon reveals how he was initially relieved to learn his mother was on deathwatch. No more hospital stays, no more news of her steep decline, no more outcast living. (Charo and his biological father had already died of AIDS-related causes.) Sitting by his mother’s deathbed, though, relief quickly mutated into the first throes of grief. “Don’t come to my funeral because I don’t want you to see me like that,” Mili tells him as he sits watch. Recasting himself into the torment of that moment, Lemon launches into a protracted monologue imagining his mother’s final prayer for her sons’ safety and God’s response, condemning her with the sadism of a storefront preacher/death-row warden.
Just months into orphanhood, Lemon served a few weeks at Rikers for back-to-school shoplifting before dropping out of school entirely. Miraculously, he landed a mailroom job at Goldman Sachs but was soon let go for “gettin’ ghetto in the elevator.” Meanwhile, the mother of a girlfriend he hardly cared for discovered that he took her daughter’s virginity and coerced him into proposing marriage. Which led Lemon to delve deeper into crack-dealing—partly in an attempt to break up the relationship. With a hoochie-mama impression that could put the most acerbic of Latino drag queens to shame, Lemon details the moment his girlfriend calls off their shotgun wedding, on site at his next court sentencing, where he sighs with relief as the guards cart him off for another round at Rikers Island.
This time, Rikers proved to be an uncharacteristically true reformatory. Offered a year in prison or five-years probation, Lemon took the one-year sentence to bypass five years of random urine tests and enforced curfews. But unlike most guys from the big house, Lemon doesn’t have any visible tattoos on stage. This might be due to the fact that, instead of hanging with fellow inmates, he made a self-improvement campaign out of his time up the river. First thing he did was sign up for prison boot camp, where he let the military sergeant whip him into shape. Instead of messing around in rec hall, he’d go straight to his cell and read stacks of books from the prison library. He also started scribbling poems, and it began to dawn on him that he might have a calling as a writer.
Lemon came out of Rikers a new man—only the world didn’t see it that way. Couch-surfing at his brother’s pad in East New York, Lemon applied for job after job but no one would hire an ex-con, even though, as he says, “It was written even Jesus Christ had a felony.” Lemon went back to dealing crack, this time in Columbus, Ohio, where he got busted again. Due to overcrowding in the state pen, the court sprang him.
If fate hadn’t finally decided to do Lemon a good turn, his crime-and-punishment cycle would have gone right on reeling. But a flier for an open-mic poetry event at El Puente Community Center in Williamsburg (in his native Kings County, Brooklyn), fell onto Lemon’s path. Remembering the bliss of reading and writing in his cell, he looked forward to that open-mic like a hot date. He even got a haircut! Just before he was due to step up to the mic, he sat down to scribble, and the energy of all his years of despondency and hopes for a better life collided like two storm clouds on that page. Just like in a movie, he read his impromtu poem, gathering spirit and strength with each successive line, and the crowd roared to christen his new life as a superstar bard. That same night, he met Monica Rivera, a health educator at El Puente, who offered him a job as a peer educator and a spot in an AIDS theater troupe. El Puente was also to be the place where he would meet his wife Marilyn with whom he now has two daughters, Heaven and Shine.
Clearly, Lemon’s suffering was not in vain. Since that fateful first reading in 1993, he has steadily honed his craft and his genius for performance poetry has garnered distinctions galore. After co-writing and performing in a sold-out run of Slanguage with the Bronx-based ensemble Universes, he went on to appear a record eight times on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam and later earned a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award nomination for his writing and performance in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. He also won the admiration of another Brooklyn native, director Spike Lee, who casted him in three films (Sucker Free City, She Hate Me, Inside Man) and now regards Anderson as a core member of his 40 Acres family. Along with Steve Coleman, Jayson Jackson, Tom Wirtshafter, and the illustrious Culture Project, Spike Lee is a co-producer of County of Kings.
With a stipend from American Playhouse Theater, Lemon originally began writing his show as a book. Good thing he changed his mind, or the theater scene would be missing out on a spellbinding drama by an artist who is equal parts emcee, wordsmith, actor, and survivor.
County of Kings runs Tuesdays through Sundays, until November 8th, at The Public Theater on 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan. No performance on November 1.
For tickets, visit www.publictheater.org.
ContributorKyle Thomas Smith
Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel, 85A. He lives in Brooklyn.