With all the passion that fans continue to voice in social media for characters from HBO’s “The Wire,” there is undoubtedly a huge audience that would love to see a sequel.
But Norris Davis, a Baltimore resident who played Vinson in the series and co-wrote a play that he has promoted as a spinoff to the HBO production, is finding out that you can run into serious problems when you use the names of characters associated with a property someone else created, especially one as popular as “The Wire.”
Last month, Davis was about to stage a production titled “The Wire: A Stage Play” at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club. It was billed in part as picking up the stories of Avon Barksdale and Chris Partlow where “The Wire” left them after it ended its run on HBO in 2008.
Promotion had already gone out in December when, club owner Rick Brown told The Baltimore Sun, he received a call from David Simon, creator and showrunner of “The Wire,” asking about the planned production of the play.
After talking to Simon and then Davis, Brown said he decided not to stage the play in January. The move was described on Bethesda and Washington digital sites at the time as a postponement.
Davis has told The Sun that he still planned to mount the production “in the next couple of months” with only a few changes. He said he expected to do that at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club as well as possibly Coppin State and Morgan State universities.
“I’m still going to stage the play,” he said. “And whatever legal ramifications I get, I’ll argue it in court. Let a judge decide whether or not I have a legitimate legal premise to stand on.”
Davis said he was willing to change the title to “Lexington Terrace,” where he said he grew up. He was also willing to stop promoting it as a spinoff or sequel to the HBO series. But Davis told The Sun he was still going to have two of the leading characters named Avon Barksdale and Chris Partlow, because he said he knew the real people with those names and that is who he is depicting.
Davis feels there is a discussion to be had about ownership of characters in works of fiction who are based all or in part on real people. But Simon and HBO, which owns rights as “The Wire’s” distributor, are crystal clear about who owns what when it comes to appropriating any content from “The Wire.”
“We can confirm that Norris Davis is not authorized by HBO to use any of the characters or other elements of ‘The Wire’ in any manner,” an HBO statement sent to The Sun said.
“Avon Barsksdale is a fictional character,” Simon, a former Sun reporter, wrote in an email response to The Sun.
“I know of no Avon Barksdale, nor have I met an Avon Barksdale in this life,” he added. “I am aware that the late Nathan Barksdale, who I once reported on and did know, later claimed that the character was based on him and that his middle name was actually Avon. His middle name was not Avon. According to all known public records, Nathan Barksdale had no middle name. Avon Barksdale was a character based on several Baltimore drug traffickers, but none in particular and not Nathan Barksdale.”
Simon also said that Chris Partlow is a fictional character.
“There was a Partlow I once knew in the Lexington Terrace projects,” his email said. “He was not a drug enforcer. He was shot to death. His name was not Chris and he bears no resemblance to our fictional character. The character of Chris Partlow was based on several Baltimore drug enforcers, but none in particular.”
Simon concluded the email: “I can’t hazard a guess as to whom Mr. Davis is referring. That said, I wish him well in his creative endeavors should they avoid HBO's basic copyright on material that is, in fact, the creative work of others. There are certainly a lot of narratives that should be told about Baltimore and Mr. Davis, or "Blue Shoes" as I have long known him, knows many tales and has his own, unique way with a good story.”
Even though Davis acknowledges having been advised by a lawyer to change the names of Barksdale and Partlow in “Lexington Terrace,” he says he doesn’t believe he has to — and won’t.
“You cannot copyright the names of real individuals,” Davis said. “Now Avon Barksdale is the name of a character in ‘The Wire.’ Bode is also the name of a character in ‘The Wire.’ However, Bode and Avon Barksdale, in real life, are the same person. His name is Nathan Avon Barksdale, aka Bode. With that being said, my premise is that, no matter how you slice it, that’s a real individual.”
Speaking during an interview as if he was addressing Simon, Davis said, “This is my culture. I know these people that you have made a fortune off of. And you’re telling me that I can’t produce a play? … These people are real. Are you telling me I can’t use their names?”
When asked what the downside would be in changing the characters’ names in an effort to avoid legal action, Davis said, “I would have to re-draft an entire script. I already have the actors. They have been rehearsing this script for months. We’ve already staged the play as a big success … at John Hopkins Turner Auditorium … two nights sold out.”
A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Medicine, on whose campus the auditorium is housed, confirmed that the play was staged there.
“We are sorry to learn there are now concerns about the rights for the content in the play. While we aim to avail our space for community activities when possible, your inquiry has inspired us to revisit the policy and process for these requests,” she wrote in an email.
Here’s how the production was promoted at the time on the Mix 106.5 radio station website:
“A LEXINGTON TERRACE PRODUCTION of THE WIRE Written by: Norris A. Davis, Jr. & Nadir Y. Abdullah. Dates and times:Friday, August 18th, 2017 @ 7pSaturday, August 19th, 2017 @ 6p. Description: Avon Barksdale has just been released from federal prison. He and his Lexington Terrace Boys want control of their empire again; but Chris Partlow, the head of the Black Guerilla Family, is determined not to give anything to the Barksdale Crew. Even so, an imprisoned drug lord named Ghost has the final word for both men.”
Davis had also launched a GoFundMe campaign in April seeking a goal of $10,000 for the production.
“I am an actor and writer who starred in the hit, critically acclained (sic) HBO series "The Wire" ... Well, I have written a spin off to that series entitled "Wire". Having worked with David Simon qnd (sic) Ed Burns, I am the only one who can continue the spell binding drama ...”
He has received no donations.
In a 1998 Sun article, Davis admitted to having been a conman, drug addict and thief. He pleaded guilty in 1994 to felony theft for soliciting a $1,667.66 donation for Maryland Public Television and depositing it in an account he had fraudulently set up for himself.
"God knows I was a bad person, a drug addict, a thief. I spent my life going in and out of correctional institutions,” Davis is quoted as saying at that time.
When asked about that story recently, Davis said he disputed nothing in that Sun report, but stressed that it was 20 years ago.
Nadir Y. Abdullah may be well qualified to be the co-author of the play. A person by that name pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in 1989 as part of an organization that was said to control the heroin trade in the Lexington Terrace and Poe Homes housing projects taking in $250,000 a week, according to a story in The Sun.
In an email, Davis said the co-author was a different person, a Nadir S. Abdullah. When The Sun pressed to contact the co-author directly, this reporter received an email from “Nadir Abdullah” in which he wrote, “I am the same individual that you mentioned in your correspondence to Norris.” He has not responded to further questions.
Simon said he was not aware of the play’s staging in August at Hopkins. He said he first heard of Norris’ efforts in December, when someone told him about the planned production at Bethesda Blues & Jazz.
When club owner Brown was asked by the Sun where he was in terms of presenting the play, he said, “Not anywhere.”
He said he told Davis, “It has to be right with HBO” before he will even consider presenting the play.
Furthermore, he added, he is already booked into June with weekend performances, so there is little chance of it being staged this spring.
Brown said he was “trying to be polite to Norris” in December by characterizing his actions as a postponement rather than a cancellation to a Bethesda publication.
Norris said he now thinks it might have been a tactical mistake trying to bring his play the Bethesda Club: “Now let me be further candid with you, I think when I crossed over to the affluent white community, that’s when HBO came at me. Had I stayed in the inner city of Baltimore, I believe I would have never had this problem.”
As for Coppin State and Morgan State, Davis wrote in an email response to The Sun that he had not yet contacted either.
Davis seems determined to stage the play — with Avon Barksdale and Chris Partlow as the names of two of his leading characters.
But for the moment, at least, it looks like he might have a hard time finding others willing to join him in that act by letting him do that on their stage.