We are human beings, right? We were at one point in our lives.
There was an excited energy in the air on opening night of The King of Howard Street. Not only was it the World Premiere of this powerful new play, it was also the first theatrical production held at Le Mondo – the artist-owned and operated performance space (and studio space, and neighborhood bar) – that will soon be the new home of Baltimore Annex Theater (“Annex”). Le Mondo is a particularly meaningful venue for this show. The subject of the play, Anthony Williams, lived for more than 20 years in abandoned buildings along Howard Street, where Le Mondo is located.
In his last few years before landing a home and starting work as a housing rights advocate, Anthony Williams, who had been homeless since childhood, started writing about his experiences and about the community of homeless people he knew. A year ago, Williams approached Evan Moritz, Annex’s Founding Artistic Director, outside the theater. He gave Moritz three spiral-bound notebooks containing his stories and observations of life on the street. Moritz found Williams’ writing compelling. He commissioned playwright and Annex Company Member Ren Pepitone to adapt Williams’ journals into a producible play and tapped Baltimore School for the Arts Theatre Department Head Rosiland Cauthen to direct it.
The show begins with Anthony’s cane-assisted entrance through the house, clad in jeans, a t-shirt and over shirt, scarf, hat, and boots. He takes his place on a bench and opens his notebook as a group of homeless people make their way to the stage, hitting up audience members along the way. “Can you spare some change? I need… bus fare to Mondawmin, a Peanut Chew, something to eat.”
Throughout the play, Anthony observes his friends and scribbles notes about their lives, and his own. The result is a gritty, no-holds-barred look at the poverty, addiction, and mental illness suffered by those who have been failed by an institutionally classist and racist system. But it’s neither a two-and-a-half-hour lecture, nor an indictment of humanity in general. The King of Howard Street also shows how crises can bring people together and how a community of people take care of themselves and each other, even under the direst of circumstances. Warming up around a steam grate that serves as a meeting spot that Anthony likens to a community center, the friends share food, information, resources, and stories. They mourn the loss of friends together, update each other on neighborhood news, and pass around bottles of liquor, trying to get warm. They are like a family.
Joshua Dixon plays Anthony Williams, a task that was likely intensified by the fact that IRL Anthony Williams was in attendance. Dixon’s performance was full of power and emotion, ably portraying the physical and emotional challenges and victories of his character. Dixon’s booming voice commands attention and respect; he is a problem-solver who looks after his friends and his squat with paternalistic devotion. Judging by the reaction of real-life Williams, Dixon successfully embodied the spirit of the writer-turned-activist.
Kristina Szilagyi portrays Sam, who Anthony affectionately calls “the queen of Howard Street.” Well-attired by Costume Designer Stylz, Szilagyi appears in a black and white striped dress and leggings under a crocheted, orange pullover. Dark hollow spaces beneath her eyes belie her struggles with addiction and, even atop very high heels, she seems small and fragile like a bird – particularly when she is nervous. She walks quickly, her arms hugging her loose-knit top close to her body, looking like no matter how hard she tries, she can never quite get warm. Szilagyi gives a praiseworthy, nuanced performance, presenting Sam as tough enough to survive on the street, yet radiating an air of sweetness and vulnerability.
Dom, Sam’s super-jealous boyfriend, is adeptly played by Malcolm Anomnachi. It takes a lot of control for an actor to portray a character completely out of control. Anomnachi nails it; Dom’s drug-fueled rages and questionable mental state make him a truly frightening wild card.
Christian Harris plays Georgia, a sassy, irreverent young woman who looks to be about 11-months pregnant. Opportunistic and sly, Harris’ Georgia looks out for number one and doesn’t care whose sensibilities she might offend. As brash as her character may be, when Harris sings, it feels like church. Her soulful rendition of “Hold Fast to Dreams” – a song based on Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams” – is achingly beautiful.
Director Rosiland Cauthen elicits first-rate performances from the remaining members of the ensemble, as well. Elaine Foster and Annex Company Member David Crandall play a pair of “Buzzard Winged Figures” who appear intermittently throughout the play, performing various tasks. Foster, like Harris, has a lovely singing voice. Mari Travis and Martique Smith are fine actors who feel a bit underutilized in their roles as perpetually drug-addled couple, Emily and Tripp. I did enjoy their graceful, dreamy dance sequence – especially Travis’ skilled ballet moves. Desiree Butler is tough-as-nails as spice-smoking pragmatist, McFly. Nathan Couser exudes a charming simplicity as Anthony’s talkative buddy, Saint Lewis. And Jonathan Jacobs’ upbeat, Ravens-obsessed Randall has a well-crafted hustle and would happily take a hit off your bottle of whiskey if you’re in a sharing mood.
Lighting Designer and Annex Company Member Rick Gerriets skillfully illuminates Bernard Dred’s minimalist set. Gerriets’ expert lighting delineates days and scenes, suggests street traffic and emergency vehicles, and casts dreamy silhouettes when the characters are sleeping. Company Member David Crandall designed the excellent soundscape for The King of Howard Street. From street sounds and the metal hiss of the light rail to clever ambient music like a dainty instrumental version of “Hotel California,” Crandall’s work gets top marks.
The play is a little long, with Act I running a full 90 minutes before intermission, but it’s a small price to pay for a big reward. Anthony Williams’ story shines a light on a segment of society that most people treat as invisible. It voices a perspective often unheard in conversations about poverty, homelessness, and social and economic justice – that of the people actually living a life on the street.
The King of Howard Street ends Baltimore Annex Theater’s 2016-2017 season strong. It is an important, timely production with a talented cast and a creative team not afraid to color outside the lines. The music and dance mesh organically with the story, enriching the experience of the piece. I encourage you to catch one of the remaining performances of this brand new, Baltimore-born play and to check out Annex Theater’s new digs at Le Mondo. Big things are happening on Howard Street. Go be a part of them!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
The King of Howard Street plays through June 4, 2017, at Baltimore Annex Theater performing at Le Mondo – 406 North Howard Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the box office or purchase them online.