Sonja Sohn, other cast members will perform monologues based on accounts of city residents
When the national media converged on Baltimore this spring, they told stories of the protests and violence following the death of Freddie Gray. But those portrayals didn't ring true to the residents of the neighborhoods torn apart by unrest.
Stepping into the fray now is the cast of "The Wire," the acclaimed HBO series that ended seven years ago yet remains inextricably linked with Baltimore. They will reunite this week in the city to depict the truth as seen by those who lived through the turmoil. And they'll do so as part of Artscape, the city's signature arts event — and one of the largest public arts gatherings in the nation.
It is practically unheard of for such a reunion to take place without the prospect of Hollywood profiting off it. But Sonja Sohn, one of the cast members responsible, says the goal is giving something back to Baltimore, particularly to the people "who are living the day-to-day struggle" in the Penn North neighborhood Gray called home before dying in April of injuries sustained while in police custody.
"We lived here while we were shooting and became a part of these communities. There's a real core group of us who feel parts of Baltimore are woven into who we are as result of the time we spent here," said the 51-year-old actress who played Detective Shakima Greggs on the series, which aired from 2002 to 2008.
"One thing we as artists can give back is that we know the power of storytelling," she added. "We know how it heals and radiates outward and what it inspires in other people. And so, we're going to give a platform to these folks who felt they were not being heard."
The initial shape of that platform will be on display starting at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric when members of the cast will reunite to voice stories from residents of the neighborhood in what was considered ground zero during the riots.
According to Sohn, the actors who will be delivering monologues include Dominic West, Michael Kenneth Williams, Wendell Pierce, Seth Gilliam, Chad L. Coleman, Larry Gilliard Jr., Andre Royo, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Jaime Hector, Tristan "Mack" Wilds and Felicia "Snoop" Pearson.
Some of the residents who wrote the monologues will also be onstage with the performers, said Baltimore actress Maria Broom, who played City Councilwoman Marla Daniels on the series.
Sohn and Broom have been gathering the first-person accounts of life before, during and since the riots in workshops the past two months at the Penn North Community Resource Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is just down the street from the CVS drugstore that was seen around the world burning at the height of the rioting April 27.
"One of the things we heard over and over in the workshops is that people felt they weren't being heard before the riots, and that is part of what ignited the unrest," Sohn said. "So, OK, folks need to be heard, and that is something we know about as performing artists."
But the other thing she and Broom were told is that even though the national media came with cameras and microphones, they weren't really listening to the residents. They were mainly using them as props for the stories they wanted to tell.
"The feeling is that media was not telling the full story, or they distorted what they saw and gave people repeated images that gave an impression of this community that was false," Broom said.
Genard "Shadow" Barr, an 18-year resident of the neighborhood who worked with Broom and Sohn to find community members willing to tell their stories, said he and his neighbors were mainly portrayed as "just a bunch of savages who sell drugs and throw rocks at police."
But that's "not really the case," he added emphatically. "I'm involved with the workshops because I want people to really see and hear us."
Corie Williams, 35, one of the residents who participated in the workshops, said, "During and after the rising, people came here and said they were listening to us, but they really weren't. The workshops were good, because they listened and understood where we were coming from."
Williams said one distortion perpetrated by TV news involved the role of gang members.
"I'm not in a gang, but the news reporters all made it seem like the gang members were the ones destroying the city," Williams said. "But it actually wasn't like that, because you had a lot of gang bangers that were trying to stop people from destroying the community, because they knew they had to live here. They didn't show gang bangers lining up in front of Asian stores making sure nobody set fire to them."
The workshops offer residents a chance to define themselves, rather than having cable news correspondents impose an identity on them. And with actors from a cultural juggernaut like "The Wire" involved, the reach of the new, self-generated images will be global, analysts say.
"Even if an institution as big as Hopkins was doing this, nobody would have paid attention," said Philip Leaf, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"But the fact that it's the people from 'The Wire' doing this, No. 1, it's going to get attention," he continued. "And also, they're pretty credible actors. They're able to take and represent the voices in an exciting way. The stories are engaging, and now they are going to be told with the help of professionals."
Leaf, senior associate director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, is working with Sohn's nonprofit, ReWired for Change, to measure the workshops' effects on the participants.
For Williams, the impact went beyond just being heard. The sessions took place in cool, quiet rooms at the Penn North Recovery Center — an ambience opposite life on the summertime streets below. They included meditation and memory exercises to help participants find their voices.
"We got ourselves calm, focused on what we were doing there, and forgot about the outside world," Williams said. "Being part of something like the workshop was great because you feel some people do care what you have to say, and you get to watch and see other people and how they feel and what their perceptions were of what was going on."
Ultimately, Sohn, Broom and the authors of the individual monologues hope to produce a lasting document of the Baltimore riots that helps define the unrest for future generations — similar to the way Anna Deavere Smith's verbatim theater production "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" has for the 1992 riots in that city.
Sohn and Broom acknowledged that as a goal. But that wasn't what they were thinking about last week.
"At this moment, we're just trying to get through Saturday," Sohn said in an interview during a break in a nighttime workshop she was leading with teen girls.
"We have such a short period of time," she said. "Most of the actors won't get to town until Saturday morning because they are working Friday. So this is a streamlined version of something we hope to build out."
David Simon, creator of "The Wire," said in an email response to The Baltimore Sun that he is not involved in Saturday's reunion and stage production, but he gave it his blessing.
"I'm not involved, no," he wrote. "In New York, film editing this summer, for the most part. Hope it goes well."
Sohn says she understands how she's drawing on the "cultural capital" of the "The Wire" for her work with Saturday's production as well as Rewired for Change.
Looking back on the nonprofit's launch, she said that after the show ended in 2008, "We realized how much cultural capital we had on the street, and we thought, 'We have to do something with that.'"
She said a "core group" of cast members from "The Wire" had been planning a "private, family-type" of reunion sparked by HBO's five-day marathon rerunning of the series in late December. The get-together was scheduled for the Bahamas.
"But when everything jumped off in Baltimore in April, it became clear to us that we needed to move the reunion to Baltimore," Sohn said.
"And we knew we couldn't just come to town, have our own private thing and then just slip out," she said. "We feel we're part of this city. Baltimore has a love-hate relationship with 'The Wire.' But that's sort of irrelevant to how we feel about Baltimore. … We love it and want to support the people here who are going to have to be super-active going forward if true transformation and change is going to come."
"Wired Up" is at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. (Doors open at 2.) Free tickets are no longer available; $150 VIP tickets were available as of late Thursday. wiredup.splashthat.com