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.”