I first met Lemon Andersen, the 39-year-old poet, playwright, and actor, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe during the poetry slam renaissance of the late 1990; he was the wiry wordsmith with the sandy blond hair commanding the stage like a veteran spit king. But I really got to know him during the time we spent together as part of the original cast of Def Poetry on Broadway.
On stage at the Longacre Theatre, Lemon thrilled audiences with his powerful poetry and consistently dazzling performances. Backstage, he shared stories—by turns horrifying, hysterical, and poignant—about growing up in the rough and riotous Brooklyn of the ’80s and ’90s. Lemon’s father, a Bensonhurst native, died when he was 14; his mother Mili, from Puerto Rico, when he was 15. Both died of AIDS. After that, he spent years in an out of prison for selling drugs. In 2009, Lemon turned these and other stories into the critically acclaimed solo stage memoir County of Kings (full disclosure: I produced it).
A few weeks back, I sat down with Lemon at the Public Theater to talk about his new play ToasT. A riveting, spoken-word play about the Attica uprising, ToasT follows a group of inmates, loosely based on folklore heroes from the black oral narrative tradition, as they decide whether to risk their lives to fight for more freedom in the prison or to protect their chance at freedom—and a life—outside the prison walls. ToasT is being performed at the Public Theater through May 10. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Stephen Colman: Your new play is called ToasT. Why did you call it that?
Lemon Andersen: I’m a big fan of the toast tradition—the oral tradition of toasting—which is a kind of a signifying style of poems that comes from black culture. It’s a folklore culture from bars and pool halls and, you know, prisons. Guys used to shoot poems around, and kick the jive, and I make sure I stay close to that. I’m still a poet at the end of the day and I want to always honor that voice.
SC: How did you become interested in the traditional black oral narratives, the toasts?
LA: I felt that I loved the style, and I wanted to carry on the oral tradition, and it so happens that all these oral narratives are driven by characters. So it made sense that, “Oh shit, all these poems are driven by characters, and plays are driven by characters—might as well take those characters out of those poems.”
SC: Why did you decide to follow County of Kings with a play about Attica?
LA: It came to me, it wasn’t a play I wanted to do. You just wait for this idea to show up and you say “wait, that’s it… that’s the one.” Like County of Kings, I never really wanted to tell my story, it just showed up and said, “Yeah, you should tell it. It’s the right time. Do it.”
SC: Who do you want to see this?
LA: I work really hard that 85 percent of my audience is not a theatre-going audience. The ticket price is low, the run is short … it makes people have to go.
SC: What will they learn?
LA: The whole theme is what happens to a man who goes home after twenty-seven years of being in prison. How do we watch that? For a man who’s strong confident, swag, pimp—he still has emotions, he still has feelings, he still has fears, and he’s dealing with those paranoias.
SC: It’s set in the backdrop of the riots, uprisings, rebellion—what do you call it?
LA: Uprising, rebellion.
SC: When did you first become aware of Attica?
LA: It was the fall of ‘94, I was doing security around Rikers Island. I was a low flight-risk—I had a nonviolent crime, I was only doing eight months. Actually, they did a hunger strike while I was there because they were still remembering Attica. They were still commemorating Attica by not eating lunch, or they wore black tape around their wrists. One of the guys happened to be in Attica during the uprising, so he was telling me all about it while we were in security. We began to talk about it. It never left, that I knew someone who was actually there.
SC: Can you talk more about your specific prison history?
LA: I’ve been to many different houses. For three years as a kid, from 16 to 19, I was in and out of prison. It wasn’t just New York prisons—I was in Ohio as well. And I got to experience the social conditions of each prison, whether it was a detention center or an actual yard. I noticed that there were these dynamics socially that were happening; there was a lot of laughter and card games and jokes. And I’ve never really seen that in a play. These guys are human beings, too. When I was locked up in prison, I found that the funniest people in the world were there with me. The most talented sculptors were there with me. These guys were sculpting beauty out of soap.
SC: That really comes through in the play, the normal everyday life—and then the violence. Did you also experience that dark side?
LA: I was in and out like a revolving door. It happens to a lot of young people. Mostly drugs, everyone sold drugs in the ’90s. I had just lost my mother and father at that time to drug abuse. And so, someone like me who walked in the courtroom without parents, they automatically kept me, put me in Rikers Island. During the orientation, there was one officer who stood out—Irish guy, small, he might have been a captain. And he was looking to make an example out of someone. You could see it in his eyes, he was looking for the right person. And I remember he dropped this kid right in front of all of us. This white guy fucking laid this kid out.
SC: For nothing?
LA: No. The kid smirked at him.
SC: What was your relationship with the guards like?
LA: There was an officer in Rikers in ’95 who I worked for, I knew his daughter outside. A lot of these officers at Rikers lived in New York City—they were the homies. He took a liking to me, and we kicked it hard. There were times, I’ll say this on the record, he would bring me some whisky. I got that cool with him. It was a long time ago, he’s retired. And so, we got to talking about life a lot. I noticed that he cared a lot. He would take me to the side, and talk to the inmates. Out of that, though, the superiors didn’t like him.
SC: What was the daily prison life like?
LA: Once you get sentenced, you are pretty much riding your bid out. So it gets boring—but it’s never that boring because if you are someone who’s doing a “skit bid,” then you are always on your toes, just as much as someone doing 25-to-life.
SC: What bid?
LA: Skit bid, which is a little skit.
SC: Oh, a skit. So it is theatre.
LA: [Laughing] It’s a vignette, you are just the opening act. We got cats in here doing epic trilogies.
SC: So when you went to Ohio, what was that like?
LA: Muslims were eating pork, you know?
SC: No religious freedom?
LA: None of that. They didn’t support it. What was different from New York prison was that the uprising in Attica changed a culture of New York prisons, it didn’t necessarily change a culture for all prisons across America. So Ohio was backed up 15 years…
SC: When you say it changed the culture, in what way?
LA: You have books, you have trade, the complaint of trade and schooling is not that of New York state prisons—
SC: Because of Attica?
LA: Yes, because of Attica.
SC: So, if you were in Attica, what side would you be on?
LA: Depends on how long my bid is. For instance, if I’m doing five years, I might be like, “oooooh man, I’m going home!” So I might lock myself in a cell.
SC: You would?
LA: I might lock myself in a cell, because I have more to give outside than I can give to these men. It’s inevitable that in 1971 the state doesn’t care about us, the government doesn’t care about us. So why am I going to risk my life to make what kind of statement? If I only got five years left. If I was doing Willy’s time, if I was doing Annabel’s time, you know, those people who are doing hard time—fuck it. [Willy and Annabel are two of the central characters in ToasT.]
SC: One of the things I wanted to get to is the timing of this play is extraordinary, with Eric Garner and Ferguson.
LA: And the case in Attica. That happened recently.
SC: There’s also this renewed focus on the brutal conditions at Rikers. You started working on this play before all of this.
LA: Right, three and a half years ago. What happened in Attica, the beating that happens to Hard Rock [a character in ToasT], it happens every single day. When I heard about some of the conditions that are happening in Rikers Island a few years ago, I knew that already.
SC: It was like that when you were there?
LA: Of course it was.
SC: You were saying that Attica has clearly changed things, but there’s this other thing that’s still…
LA: Well, the revolution is becoming popular culture again, because young people are now believing that they have something to say. We come from an era when we were trying to free these political prisoners. It’s coming back, but it’s not political no more, it’s local, right? Now political prisoners are dead black kids.
SC: So de Blasio famously said he had a conversation with his son Dante about what to do with police. Do you have conversation with your daughters? What do you tell them?
LA: I got stopped and frisked in front of my kids. Right in front of my house. In Bushwick. In front of my children. My kids were all sitting in the car while this happened to me. And this was three and a half years ago, so one of them was a baby in the car, one of them was 9, one of them was 7.
SC: What did you tell them?
LA: I told them, “I have my kids in the car, can you not embarrass me?” They started touching me, ta-ta-ta. Tapping me down. They didn’t detain me. I was like, “Look, can you do me a favor and not do this right now, ’cause I know you have to meet quota.” I start talking language they know because I know cops. I say, “I know you have to meet quota tonight, can I not be the collar? I have kids in the car.” Flashlight on my kids, right in my kids’ face, you know. And that’s why I wrote the stop-and-frisk piece for The Nation magazine. That happened to me. I was on my way to a gig.
SC: Do you believe we need another Attica?
LA: No. We don’t need another Attica, because it means people have to die in order for things to change. We don’t need that. It took a lot. And that’s what’s happening now. All these kids are being killed, and it’s taking these kids in order for us to open our eyes and say: we gotta change things. It shouldn’t have to take that.
SC: There’s obviously been a lot of talk about wealth inequality over the last few years. The “Shine Titanic Poem” in the play explores a lot of those same issues. [Shine is a black stoker on the Titanic, who repeatedly warns the captain that the ship is sinking. When the captain doesn’t listen, Shine jumps in the water and sets off for Harlem.] So it works out well for Shine. Do you think it’s going to work as well for poor people as it does for Shine on the Titanic?
LA: That’s probably the toughest question I’ve ever been asked. Because I represent poor people more than I represent Puerto Ricans. I represent a class more than I represent a culture or an ethnicity.… No, it’s not going to work out. As much faith as I practice everyday, the reality is that I’ve seen enough to know, and I’ve experienced enough to know around very wealthy people, that the majority of them who control the finances of our world could care less about any survival.
SC: You’re one of a small group of people, but increasingly influential, who have successfully blended poetry, spoken word, with hip hop and theater. What is your relationship with what some people call hip-hop theater?
LA: I think it’s valid as a cultural title. I mean its like “you do hip hop and theater, you bring hip hop to theater.” I get that. But when you title the work I do as hip-hop theater, you got it all wrong. I write drama, I don’t write theater. I don’t do theater. Theater is a place where you go.
SC: What’s next for you?
LA: I’m writing a play about class. I’m writing a play set on an Ivy League campus, it’s the relationship between the Ivy league community and the ’hood that’s across the street.
SC: That’s a lot of schools.
LA: Damn right it is.
SC: Are you doing television?
LA: Yeah, I have to pay bills. The kids are expensive, bro.
SC: You’re in Brooklyn, most expensive real estate in the world these days—even in Bushwick.