At first glance, the 400 block of N. Howard St. looks much like it has for a long time — mostly neglected.
But amid the rows of boarded-up buildings, creative activity has sprouted for several years. The east side of the street houses the pioneering gallery Current Space and the multipurpose Downtown Cultural Arts Center.
Now the block's west side is getting more dynamic, thanks to the artists collective called Le Mondo, which is in the early stages of reclaiming three vacant structures.
One has undergone enough renovation to have a soft opening with a recent exhibit of works by Maryland Institute College of Art graduate students. This week, Le Mondo welcomes audiences for the first full-fledged theater production in the space — a particularly apt production.
Annex Theater will present the premiere of "The King of Howard Street," a play written by Anthony Williams, a formerly homeless man who found shelter in abandoned buildings only yards away from the Le Mondo site.
"One year ago, Anthony came up to me on the street and handed me his handwritten composition books," says Evan Moritz, founding artistic director of Annex Theater and one of Le Mondo's creative directors.
"It was a moment of serendipity. To have our first production [at Le Mondo] be this play and here in this place, there's something very, very exciting about that. It feels good to be doing it," Moritz says.
This part of downtown once housed retailers, restaurants and theaters. The spot at 406 N. Howard, the Le Mondo building that will house the staging of Williams' play, started life in 1916 as an entertainment venue, showing silent movies starring the likes of Baltimore's own Francis X. Bushman.
The structure was most recently the site of a uniform store. Other nearby buildings have been vacant for decades.
"There's a history we don't talk about, a history that didn't stop in 1980 or 1990," Moritz says. "Anthony's play acknowledges that history. He shows you the whole network of friends he had among the squatters up and down the street."
Williams now has a part-time job and, with the help of a Section 8 housing voucher, an apartment in East Baltimore, the neighborhood where he grew up. He is an advocate for the rights of homeless people and has testified before the City Council.
"I gradually stopped drinking, stopped smoking crack, stopped smoking cigarettes," Williams said. "I will be 54 this summer. It took me 53 years to get to this point. I never knew my parents. I ran away from my first foster home. I ended up homeless. It's not a glamorous lifestyle, but it is a life and it's becoming a culture here in Baltimore."
While living that life with others in an abandoned building — "bando" in urban slang — Williams started to write down his experiences. He went to the library to read books about play-writing.
"One piece of advice I read was to keep writing, don't stop," he says. "That's what I did."
The result is "The King of Howard Street."
"Being in a bando, men and women living without water or heat, is kind of like a family," he says, "but a dysfunctional family. I used that as a base to work from. This play is about our day-to-day life, what we were doing to survive in downtown Baltimore."
That survival is not just about panhandling for money or food.
"You have to do things just to hold your head together," Williams says. "You see a homeless person, but you don't know the turmoil inside that person. People with mental illness, like me, have ups and downs. People use substances, like I did, to kill the pain. Three of the folks who stayed with me in the bando are dead from overdoses."
Rosiland Cauthen, director of "The King of Howard Street," found Williams' writing compelling.
"When I first read his play, I saw that, past the nitty-gritty of it, was a work about people who just happen to exist in a very different way from how most people in America live. And I was struck by how self-aware Anthony was that he was writing a play."
Annex Theater member Ren Pepitone adapted Williams' writings "to provide more dramatic structure," Cauthen says, "and boil down a lot of characters."
A cast of 11 will perform the premiere production.
"The actors are very cool," Williams says. "The guy who plays me does a good job."
Although "The King of Howard Street" concerns a very tough subject, it is not entirely bleak.
"The play has so much beauty and light and hopefulness in it," Cauthen says. "Beneath the harsh circumstances, Anthony shows the humanity. There are comical characters. The play really reminded me that people who are homeless are people first."
Williams takes the approaching premiere of his play in stride.
"You don't know what's going to happen in life, particularly my life," he says. "Things just happen and happen. And sometimes they turn out good because something was there or someone was there to bring me back."
For the old buildings on Howard Street, Le Mondo is there to help bring them back.
The target date for a grand opening of the structure at 406 N. Howard is next fall, but there has already been enough progress for the soft opening and for some artist studios to be outfitted.
Lining one wall in the building's main, high-ceilinged room is a large wooden bar reclaimed from a building targeted for demolition several blocks away. Le Mondo folks took it apart and reassembled it at the Howard Street location.
"It's a symbol of our by-hook-or-by-crook process," says Carly J. Bales, who serves with Moritz and Ric Royer as creative directors of Le Mondo.
The collective recently acquired a liquor license and plans to have the bar open nightly in the future.
Funding from the city and state, as well as from individuals, corporations and foundations, made it possible to get the first renovation underway; more money is in the pipeline.
If enough is raised, renovations will commence on the two buildings next door; projected components include a black-box theater (Annex Theater plans to make that a home base), more artists' studios, apartments and a cafe.
"After [working on 406 N. Howard] we've learned a good bit about how to do those second and third buildings," Moritz says. "We feel very confident we're going to move forward on them, and very confident that it will take a lot longer than we thought."
Although plenty of complications have already been faced — water pipes that can't sustain the pressure needed for the required sprinkler system, for example — Le Mondo always seems to maintain momentum. Furniture being discarded by the Hippodrome Theatre found a new home at Le Mondo. A touring theater company donated a lighting system.
"It can be a complete mental nightmare at times," Bales says, "but we are too crazy or too stupid to stop. We are hoping we can be a positive voice here."
If you go
"The King of Howard Street" opens Thursday and runs through June 3 at Le Mondo, 406 N. Howard St. Tickets are $7 to $15. Go to baltimoreannextheater.org.