His story begins a decade ago in Brooklyn, where he grew up fighting in New York's public housing before discovering another kind of power. After three felony convictions and time served at Rikers Island, Lemon Andersen didn't have many places to turn except to his words. Now he's a Tony Award winner with a rave-reviewed one-man show called County of Kings.
He spoke with weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden about his life and the new independent documentary film about it, called simply, Lemon.
On his name, Lemon
"I'm a half-breed, you know. I am Puerto Rican and Norwegian from decent, and I grew up — born and raised — in New York City, and I stood out amongst my friends in my community, I was very blond-haired, white — and 'Lemonhead' was the name they gave me."
On the influence of his mother
"My mother, Millie, she was extremely liberal, from traditional Puerto Rican upbringing, you know, so there wasn't South Side in my house growing up. There was disco music and zodiac signs on the wall. She brought me out to dance, and you know, I was dancing with my mom at a young age.
"She taught me about soul and music, and she took me to parties in the street. Of course there was a kind of backlash to that lifestyle. She was getting high, and it was during the time when AIDS — it was really bad. It came down on my mother. We led a whole different life once the AIDS epidemic came.
"It's really about honor for me. I owe it to my mother, she just put a lot of fire in me. So when I'm onstage, and you see that side, it's really because I've been really blessed to have a mother who taught me how to fight hard."
On discovering poetry
"I was in a juvenile detention center at Rikers Island and there was an anthology written by the inmates called The Pen, and, you know, I had a crush on a girl and she left me when I was incarcerated, and I found this poem in this anthology that talked about having your heart broken and being incarcerated, so I related to the poem so much that I started to take on more poetry. And I found out that poetry was really beautiful at putting these thoughts and words together when you couldn't do it yourself. ... It showed up like a boss, like when you're looking for a job, and you're knocking on all these doors and no one wants to hire you, and you're tainted with a past, so poetry showed up. ... Then I found out that poetry and theater have had a relationship for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so I am part of carrying that torch."
From fame to food stamps
"It was tough on me more than actually losing my mom growing up because I had children, and so this opportunity to ... write a new chapter in my life came, and I started to develop this staged memoir, and the next thing you knew I really found my kind of position in the sun, as I call it."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. This story begins almost a decade ago in Brooklyn when a kid who grew up fighting in the projects discovered another kind of power. After three felony convictions and time served at Rikers Island, Lemon Andersen didn't have many places to turn, except to his own words.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEF POETRY JAM")
LYDEN: He was the most popular poet on HBO series "Def Poetry Jam."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEF POETRY JAM")
LEMON ANDERSEN: I'm from the County of Kings, where every day we know we fortunate if we see another morning. We take our nieces, our nephews, put them under our wings, send them out in that world, hoping they keep that grass green.
LYDEN: Now, he's a Tony Award winner with a rave-reviewed, one-man show called "County of Kings." This past week, the independent documentary film "Lemon" aired on PBS. It's also been on the indie film circuit in theaters. Lemon Andersen joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
ANDERSEN: Hello. It's great.
LYDEN: First of all, why do they call you that, Lemon?
ANDERSEN: Well, I'm a half-breed. You know, I'm Puerto Rican and Norwegian from descent, and I grew up, born and raised in New York City, and I stood out amongst my friends in my community. I was very blond-haired, white, and Lemonhead was the name that they gave me.
LYDEN: Both your parents are gone early in your life, and the relationship you have with your mother really informs your work. Tell me a little bit about her.
ANDERSEN: You know, my mother, Millie, she was extremely liberal from traditional Puerto Rican upbringing, you know. And so there wasn't salsa in my house growing up. There was disco music and zodiac signs on the wall. She brought me out to dance and, you know, I was dancing with my mom at a young age. She taught me about soul and music, and she took me to parties in the street. Of course, there was a backlash to that kind of lifestyle. And she was getting high, and it was during the time where AIDS, you know, was really bad. It came down on my mother.
We led a whole different life once the AIDS epidemic came. And, you know, it's really about honor for me. You know, I owe it to my mother. She just put a lot of fire in me. So when I'm onstage and you see that side, it's really because I've been really blessed with a mother who taught me how to fight hard and...
LYDEN: Would you mind sharing something from your stage piece about your mother?
ANDERSEN: (Reading) My mother Millie is five feet full of tough tenderness, a rare, proudless Puerto Rican by way of a (unintelligible) - rigorous, rebellious, reckless, one born second out of seven children, chosen as if the chilled chalice of the 1970s, tough love supreme. But behind her bold boiling point, she loves me so unconditional. So I say, OK, Millie, can we go to the Himalaya ride today? See, I knew she would say yes. That's the only thing I like about Coney Island in the summer anyway, because the beach is a mess full of drunk lifeguards getting robbed under the boardwalk, the sand is like walking on hot coal, plus, you got broken glass everywhere.
So finally, when she couldn't get no more bronzed, Millie gets up off her floral house blanket, folds it into a red, pleather, oversized purse, and we're off to the Himalaya.
LYDEN: And the Himalaya is this great ride that she takes you to at Coney Island, which we see in the film. Lemon Andersen, when did you begin to connect with poetry?
ANDERSEN: I was in juvenile detention center, and I was in Rikers Island. And there was an anthology written by the inmates called "The Pen," and I - you know, I had a crush on a girl, and she left me when I was incarcerated. And I found this poem in this anthology that talked about having your heart broken and being incarcerated. So I related to the poem so much that I started to take on more poetry. And I found out that poetry was really beautiful at kind of putting these thoughts and words together when you couldn't do it yourself.
LYDEN: Well, you say in the film that you found a home in poetry when no one else would have you.
ANDERSEN: No, it really did. You know, it showed up like a boss, right, you know, when you're looking for a job and you're knocking on all of these doors and no one wants to hire you and you're tainted with a past. So poetry showed up. It felt like, all right, well, this is the only job that showed up for me, so I'm going to really show up for this job, and I'm going to really try to transcend poetry. And then I found out that poetry and theater have had a relationship for hundreds, if not thousands of years. So I became part of carrying that torch, you know?
LYDEN: If not thousands is absolutely right. I want to go back to your parents. In 2003, Russell Simmons produces "Def Poetry Jam" for Broadway. You're part of the team that wins a Tony, and this film follows you. And we don't know how it's going to turn out. Lots of ups and downs. And after the show closes, really kind of a downtime. What was it like to go from Broadway to being back on food stamps with your family in the projects?
ANDERSEN: It was tough on me more than actually losing my mom growing up because I had children. And so this opportunity to write something new, write a new chapter in my life, came when I started to develop this staged memoir. And next thing you know, I really found my kind of position in the sun, as I call it.
LYDEN: It's just amazing, because I think that spoken word artists and poets, you know, rather like musicians, you can have these extreme highs and, boy, then the next thing you know, you don't know what's going to happen. You've been really unlucky in your life, but you've also had some incredible luck.
ANDERSEN: Yeah, well...
LYDEN: Incredible connections. One of them is your wife. She comes through as a real heroine, your wife Marilyn.
ANDERSEN: Yes, I'm very lucky. I tell her all the time, everyone really loves her in this film. I've never seen the film, but I do a lot of...
LYDEN: You haven't?
ANDERSEN: No, I haven't seen the film. And people really love her. And I'm glad they see what I see at home. And, you know, she's a normal, very, very normal woman with great strength. And sometimes we don't shine the light on that kind of lady in the world, right? You know, we're always looking for the lady who looks good on the red carpet.
LYDEN: So why haven't seen the film?
ANDERSEN: I wanted to let the filmmakers tell their own story. No one touches me when I write my story, unless I hire you to or I allow you to. And Laura Brownson and Beth Levison were really important. It's almost like I played dead as an artist.
LYDEN: Hmm. So in other words, it's their movie, but it's your life.
LYDEN: What are you working on now?
ANDERSEN: I'm working on a play about Attica. And I took this great folklore hero named Dolomite and Stagger Lee, and I put him in this setting, 1971, right before the uprising. And it's just all imagination.
LYDEN: That's Lemon Andersen. There's a new documentary out about him called "Lemon." Lemon Andersen, thanks very much.
ANDERSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.