For five seasons, Sonja Sohn played Detective Kima Greggs on HBO's "The Wire," the gritty Baltimore crime drama. It was a breakthrough role for Sohn, who came from a troubled upbringing in Virginia and went from poet to actress.
But on a recent weeknight, Sohn was not on a Hollywood film set. She was at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, speaking on a cell phone to the facilitator of a GED program, trying to figure out why 21-year-old Sean Hawkins hasn't been attending. She sat Hawkins down and crouched at his feet.
"You gotta tell us everything, everything," she told him, "because we know your situation."
For the past six weeks, Hawkins has been part of a small group of troubled city youths meeting with Sohn and two counselors for a program Sohn is developing called "ReWired for Change," which uses the television show as a textbook of sorts to discuss the challenges of growing up amid crime and poverty. The program concludes Thursday when the participants perform their own poetry at a fundraiser at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum.
During its run, "The Wire" was praised for its authentic portrayals of urban life, and over the course of the youth program, Sohn's group dealt with very real issues. Hawkins lost his brother to gun violence, and one of the students was forced to stop attending after being placed on electronic home monitoring. One of the girls missed a session after being hospitalized for a reason Sohn declines to discuss.
"It can be a messy process, and there's an investment that needs to be made on more than just a superficial level," Sohn said. "Our facilitators are people who aren't afraid to get involved."
Sohn, her stage name, grew up in Newport News, Va., the daughter of a black father and Korean mother. She excelled in school as an honors student and class president, while privately struggling with drugs and sexual abuse from an early age. "I was a kid who tried hard - hard - to do the right thing," she said.
She ended up in New York City, taking creative writing classes and joining a poetry group where she worked through her pain on stage through often-intense readings. That led to a starring role in the film "Slam," which took the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.
Sohn landed a few movie roles, including a small part in Martin Scorsese's "Bringing Out the Dead," before being cast in "The Wire" as Greggs, a lesbian narcotics detective. Though she calls it the "role of a lifetime," she said she had difficulty concentrating and performing on the set because some of the show's scenes evoked painful memories.
"The show actually provided a tool for my own personal transformation, giving me a structure at which to look at my own behavior and investigate my own trauma," she said.
That would be the spark for "ReWired for Change."
"Ordinarily for actors, a gig is a gig - you do the work and you move on to the next job," said David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who created "The Wire." "Sonja made herself a Baltimorean in spirit and deed. She's come back here with the intent of doing something meaningful, rooted in the message of the show."
The curriculum was developed in conjunction with faculty at the University of Maryland, targeting girls and boys ages 14 to 21 who have been involved with the criminal justice system.
Sohn met Hawkins through a program called Yo! Baltimore as he was awaiting adjudication on drug charges, and he told her that he'd attend, barring jail or prison time. Hawkins, who has a daughter and another child on the way, received probation in July, which he took as a sign to get his life turned around. He said he'd seen every episode of the "The Wire" and was intrigued about working with Sohn.
"It was interesting to me that someone that's not from this city could take a liking or an interest in people from this city, because people here don't care about us," he said.
Midway through the program, Hawkins' 18-year-old brother was slain in a double-shooting on the city's east side. He discussed with the group his anger and desire to retaliate.
Sohn and youth mentor Gregory "Shamsuddin" Carpenter have been working closely with Hawkins to help him get his GED and into a trade program. His poem, "Life is a Chess Game," is the most polished of those that will be performed Thursday.
"He's brilliant, but he's got so much stuff on his back," Sohn said of Hawkins.