Poet, solo performer, and now playwright Lemon Andersen is speaking with me from the lobby of the Public Theater, on a break from rehearsals of his first full-length play, ToasT, which is having its world-premiere at the Public Theater Lab this April. His impressive resume includes a Tony Award for Def Poetry Jam and a New York Book Festival Grand Prize for his memoir County of Kings. Our conversation is interrupted on occasion by friends and well-wishers approaching Andersen. The condensed, transcribed interview cannot do justice to the mesmerizing cadence of his speech and the power of his convictions.
Susan Soon He Stanton (Rail): ToasT portrays a group of inmates caught in the middle of the 1971 Attica prison riots, where approximately 2,200 inmates rebelled and seized control of the prison. Woven throughout is the unexpected way the men communicate with each other with humor and poetry. How did the idea come to you?
Lemon Andersen: I was incarcerated as a kid in ’95. I did a year at Rikers, and I met a guy there who told me about the uprising. I was 19 years old at the time, and there was a hunger strike. What’s important about the job of a playwright is that you don’t write ideas, you write callings. This story called to me because I know firsthand the conditions in the prison. I’ve seen plays that have been great drama, but they haven’t gotten the social conditions right. Not every single moment in prison is sad or tense. There are some funny people in prison, and I put some of those characters into the play.
Rail: Did you interview any of the former inmates or hostages?
Andersen: The second you interview someone, you get their version of your story. You want your version of your story. My brother-in-law was incarcerated in Attica, and, if he sees the play, he’ll come back to me and say immediately, “You got this wrong, you got that wrong.” And my response is “so write your own play.” It’s not about what I got wrong, it’s about my version of the story and what truth I am bringing to it.
Rail: One of the most distinctive things about ToasT is the empathy you have for your characters. Although initiated to protest conditions in the prison, the resulting riots caused the death of 43 people including civilians and correctional officers. Should we side with the prisoners?
Andersen: I hope that you will walk away feeling that we need to do something about this situation. This is still happening. This is a story about a man who goes home after 27 years and his options aren’t there. There’s nothing for him to go home to, because he’s an ex-con. He may be the most charming, the flyest guy in this prison, but, at the same time, his rap sheet is larger than his résumé.
Rail: How were you able make the transition to becoming an artist?
Andersen: From the day I walked out of prison I knew I wanted to do something special, I wanted to write something special, I have a soul for this thing. I always had a sensitive nature. Sometimes it’s not good that artists are so sensitive, we tend to get wounded easily. Artists are sensitive souls and connect their empathy towards the work. I always knew that. I walked out and said I don’t want to live like this anymore.
Rail: Was there a point where you felt like you truly identified yourself as an artist?
Andersen: It’s like I tell other inmates; when you walk out of prison, and you want to be somebody, don’t tell anyone you want to be somebody, be it. Go for it. Chase it. Don’t ever tell anyone, or the pressure is on you to be successful. Your job isn’t to be successful, your job is to try every day. I had these real dreams, but they were my dreams and no one else’s, so I went out and worked very hard at them, because I wasn’t in front of them doing it. I put my pride aside and I worked. I faked it till I made it. I never told anyone I was an artist, or I’d have to prove myself to someone who’s not worth proving anything to.
Rail: I love the moment in your TED talk when you ask, “How do I get people who hate poetry to love me? Because I’m an extension of my work, and if they love me, they will love my work. And if they love my work, then they will love poetry. And if they love poetry, then I will have done my job, which is to transcend it to the world.”
Andersen: That became the mission, and it’s still the mission to this day. I want to do work for a new audience who doesn’t have a lifestyle in the theater. They walk by the Public Theater and don’t know they can come in to use the bathroom. And if they walk into the building to see the show, they don’t know how theater people react to plays.
Rail: How do you give someone who is intimidated by the architecture of the lobby of the Public Theater permission to watch and respond to your play?
Andersen: What’s fun about it is that when you bring people in, you don’t have to teach them how to act. Just sit in the audience, and, if you feel like saying something back, I challenge you to do that because I’m purposefully going to say things on stage that may cause you to respond out loud, that sting. And a new audience member may think, “I don’t know how to be quiet about things that sting. So I’m gonna react.”
Rail: When you perform your own work, you create distinctive linguistic patterns. Do you hear your own voice as you write, and is it challenging to hear an actor performing work with a different rhythm or intention than you had envisioned?
Andersen: This is my new journey, I’m on it forever at this point. I don’t hear it in my voice anymore in the play. I hear my style, I see my scene, but I don’t hear my tone, my instrument. It used to be strange. The actor has an instrument that I can never bring to the table. I love what actors do with poetry, they bring honesty and character to the poem in a way a spoken word artist won’t, because the spoken-word artist is too busy being himself.
Rail: What is the most exciting part of working as a playwright and not a solo- performer?
Andersen: I’m excited by this ensemble. There’s a lot of really good young actors out there who could become great if they have the right writers creating work for them. We have to support these communities, as storytellers and playwrights. There’s a need to feed the new American Latino identities on stage, and who better to write it than a new American Latino writer, right?
ToasT by Lemon Andersen, directed by Elise Thoron, runs April 21 – May 10 at the Public Lab. For further info and tickets, visit the publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555.
ContributorSusan Soon He Stanton
Susan Soon He Stanton is a member of the Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group, MaYi Playwrights Lab, and TerraNova's Groundbreakers. She was the inaugural recipient of the Van Lier Playwriting Fellowship at the Lark and received a feature film development grant from the Sloan Foundation. From Honolulu, Susan lives in New York City.