In the one-man poetry memoir County of Kings: The Beautiful Struggle, Lemon Andersen plays himself. And he plays his mother. And he plays his brother, his step-father, his neighbors, his teenage girlfriend, his prison boot camp commander, his cellmate, and even God. For someone who, technically, is not an actor — at least, that's not how his career started — Andersen is a gifted actor.
In the hour-plus long show, Andersen, dressed like he came right off of any urban street, serves as the storyteller of his own story. He starts with his Tony Award win; then, detail by detail, we learn how his life led to that moment. Instead of being completely straight-forward, he adeptly pops into a new character with a new personality, or breaks into a fresh, distinctive poem. His literary talents serve him well as he describes tiny details about a hip pair of jeans or the injuries of a convict. He flows back and forth with such speed that the audience, luckily, has to keep up with his pace.
Andersen shines when he's embodying the multiple characters, and when he's reciting one of his poems, like an early one about the emergence of AIDS. When he's 10, you understand his innocence. He looks up to his parents, not yet understanding how damaging their vices can be. But then we see him as a teenager, and how the loss of the people he loved hardened him. How that led to a year in jail — which, for all its difficulty, led to his discovery of poetry. In a way, this performance felt like tribute to Andersen's mother. She is the most central character besides the star himself, and he does his best to make her proud.
When we interviewed Andersen about his show before the festival started, he said he wanted to break stereotypes that the audience may have had about someone with his kind of upbringing. And that's exactly what he did, in an unexpected way. While, yes, it was surprising to hear just how much he loved American Bandstand, it's Andersen's genuine nostalgia of his difficult formative years that was the most touching. Even though his mother ODs, his stepdad gets arrested, and both of them die of AIDS, there isn't a single moment when you don't believe just how much he loved his parents, and his brother and grandmother. In the typical hard-luck story, we never get to see this kind of mutual adoration, and what happens when it's gone.
My only criticism: I wished that I felt more personally engaged. Andersen was telling us a story — his story — but I didn't feel like he was reaching out to me. This could be the fault of the venue, and that my seat was lower than the star's eye level, but this is the only area where Andersen may have been lacking. Still, when he burst into a new character, or broke into a new poem, it was something I could overlook.
County of Kings: The Beautiful Struggle. $32. Sat., May 28, 7 p.m., Sun., May 29, 7 p.m., and Mon., May 30, 7 p.m. Emmett Robinson Theatre, Simons Center for the Arts. 54 St. Philip St. (843) 722-2764