'The Wire' Watch

The Baltimore Sun

Each Sunday throughout the HBO drama's 13-week season, TV critic David Zurawik will highlight a must-see character or story element appearing in the current episode.

Baltimore actress Dravon James plays a crucial role in one of the most powerful and shocking moments likely to be seen on TV this year.

But to avoid revealing too much about the third episode of HBO's The Wire, which airs tonight, I'll say only that her character, Grace Sampson, a lead teacher at the fictional Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, slaps a female pupil across the face. The act is pretty dramatic -- and potentially controversial -- in its own right.

Created by David Simon, author and former Sun reporter, The Wire in its fourth season explores education, the kind teenagers can acquire in classrooms -- or on the streets of Baltimore.

If viewers have not focused on James or her character -- one of the teachers offering advice to new classroom recruit Roland "Prez" Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost) -- they'll probably remember her after tonight.

The 34-year-old mother of two (ages 6 and 3) did some impressive work last season in The Wire playing both Sampson and the teacher's drug-addicted sister, Queenie, but the recurring role that finds her character appearing in 11 of this season's 13 episodes is her biggest break to date, says James, who has been acting full time for the last six years.

"Acting is my passion -- it's the reason most likely that I was born," James says. "And this is a great role, because it really puts the spotlight on how committed some teachers are to both the education and the safety of students."

As to the scene with the slap: "When I initially read the script, I thought about it as Dravon, and then I thought about it as Grace. And I thought, 'If this were a real-life situation that I found myself in, is this the way I might react?' ... It is, and I am so grateful that The Wire is the kind of series with the courage to show such things -- and that I can be part of it."

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