"Wire" cast gives voice to West Baltimore residents' unheard stories

In their own words: What the uprising was like for the people who lived there

A man who identified himself as a gang leader got the chance to tell the world Saturday that even though he's been to prison, it doesn't mean that he doesn't love his city.

A Baltimore police officer talked about how hard it was to stand by and watch a family-owned business get destroyed by looters and do nothing to help.

And a mother said that her activism was reawakened by the sight of children — or, as she put it, "babies" — with the courage to stand their ground and confront the police.

A capacity audience at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric sat spellbound as former cast members from the HBO show "The Wire" walked up to a microphone and, one by one, voiced the stories they were told by residents of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

"We can't wait for more people to die," former cast member Sonja Sohn told the audience. "We can't wait for any more black men to die at the hands of police officers who were acting irresponsibly.

"That's why we put this event together. We're actors, and what we can do is to build a platform to raise voices that need to be heard."

The performance called "Wired Up!" took place in the middle of Artscape and was equal parts cast reunion, prayer service, awards ceremony and a call to action.

The event consisted of monologues that took shape during a two-day workshop. The words of the residents were read by such high-profile "Wire" cast members as Sohn, who portrayed Officer Shakima Greggs; Michael K. Williams, who was stick-up man Omar Little; Andre Royo, the heroin addict "Bubbles" Cousins; and Larry Gilliard Jr., drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale.

Cast members Dominic West and Wendell Pierce and director David Simon didn't appear at the event, but sent taped messages.

The event included the presentation of a half-dozen community hero awards, a performance by the Grammy Award-winning spoken word artist Malik Yusef, and remarks by community leader Kwame Rose, 21, whose forceful confrontation of Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera went viral after a clip was posted on YouTube.

The monologues focused exclusively on the April 27 disturbances, and not on the circumstances surrounding Gray's ultimately fatal injury a few weeks earlier while riding in a police van.

But Gray's stepfather, Richard Shipley, told the crowd: "The Gray family is so very proud of all the things shaking and moving in Baltimore. I see people working, kids going to school, camps opening. I see a lot of progress being made in a short period of time. It's just a shame that a tragedy had to happen to get us up off our butts."

In his taped remarks, Simon, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, said that real-life occurrences such as Gray's death made him feel the inadequacies of fictional stories such as "The Wire." He said he's careful to separate the television show from the historic event in remarks he's made for publication.

"No narrative can address anything as specific and fundamental as Freddie Gray," Simon said.

And yet the show, which ran from 2002 to 2008, struck many as prescient in its depiction of the tensions between police officers and members of the community.

The chance to see the actors who portrayed beloved characters inspired more than a thousand festival-goers to wait in line for nearly an hour outside the Lyric along treeless sidewalks in Saturday's 90-degree heat.

"'The Wire,' is the most realistic depiction ever made of the confusing and difficult relationship between citizens and the police," said audience member Bryan Sansone, 29, who lives in Baltimore and said he's viewed all five seasons of the show four times.

Chase Roberts, 25, also of Baltimore, appreciated that actors who lived out of town traveled to Baltimore on their own dime to participate in the performance.

"I like the idea of the cast getting together for such a meaningful cause," he said.

Williams portrayed one of the most popular characters on the show: Omar, a freelance gun for hire with a strict moral code. The actor said he came to love Baltimore in the time he spent here shooting the series.

"I feel that it is my responsibility to use whatever platform I've got to shine light on the people and the problems they face," he said. "In the eight years I was here, I saw a lot of positives. I saw a lot of potential. And, I saw a whole lot of passion."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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