Baltimore 2015 – Highs and Lows

So I have this website that allows me to blog and I really have not used this feature. Being in Baltimore at this point in time though has compelled me to put some thoughts and images and videos in one place and just leave them here instead of floating around in my head.

So it is May 1st 2015 and this morning indictments came down on the police offers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray. I gotta tell you when I heard about this young mans death I honestly felt a little numb. It just felt like it is another poor black man being killed and really nothing is gonna come of this. The people who killed him are gonna walk free once again.  I really held very little hope that this was going to be different. I was in my hotel getting ready to go in for day two of tech and had CNN on when Marilyn J Mosby got on my screen and changed my whole world. This lady does not play around. As she read the details of the indictment and the many times it was repeated that he asked for help and was denied that help, I finally cracked and shed some tears for that young man. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying it most have been for Freddie Gray in the back of a van for almost an hour, probably keenly aware of his impending death. Terrifying.

I’ve grown accustomed to the sound of helicopters flying over my temporary new Baltimore neighborhood. I am in the Mt. Vernon section of downtown and it is quite an interesting mix. On the north side I have the historic district with some of the most gorgeous architecture you would want to see with beautiful monuments galore. I’m about a 10 minute walk from the inner harbor, with night life and lots of great shopping and all the touristy stuff you would want. On one side of me is Mercy hospital and what I assume is kind of the financial district. The other side of me is a poor an undefined neighborhood, with some abandoned buildings and a few business and Lexington Market. Not a neighborhood you are eager to go to.



IMG_2945These images are from today. There was a protest in front of the prison which is about two blocks from our theater. These are mounted officers leaving the protest and the chalk drawings on the side walks was a memorial project that was quite stunning to see. It was the names of all 2210 unarmed people killed by police since 2013. 




A side story on Monday April 27th when all hell broke loose, a cast mate and I enjoying our day off decided to go an get pedicures and take care of these feet. We ended up going to the less desirable side of town because hey we’re actors and the difference between a $32 pedicure and a $20 pedicure is significant. We could tell though that there was just some heat in the atmosphere. People were keyed up and the energy was palpable. We got to our nail spot only to find them closing up shop and pulling down the steel grates. They had been told that a riot was heading our way and so they were going to leave. We decided to try and find another place but as we walked around the neighborhood it just didn’t feel 100% and you could really feel that something was coming. We were at a corner trying to make a decision and this older man came walking by and said, “riots coming this way.” We booked it outta there and back to our hotel and I think just in the right amount of time. Later that day a group of protesters came up our street and smashed in the windows of cars parked on our street they headed up the street and ended up smashing store fronts in the neighbourhood. A little later, I got a knock on the door from my cast mates saying look out the window, only to see a raging fire in full effect. This was the old folks home burning down.

The very next day we had our sitzprobe and would begin our technical rehearsal week. We were supposed to be rehearsing until midnight some nights this week and that quickly got nixed due to the curfew and emergency proceedings that hit Baltimore the next day. It was upsetting to walk by business that had become part of our routine here smashed up with our new neighbors dealing with the repercussions of this. Our director Kwame Kwei-Armah, a wise, wonderful, very handsome and generous man, started our rehearsal with a moment for us to debrief and talk. There were many emotions in that room  that day: anger, frustration, sadness, helplessness, fear and a strong desire to do something. Our room though has been filled with love from day one thanks to Mr. Kwei-Armah and by the end of the morning session we knew we would be ok. We had a mountain to climb but we would figure out a way to do something. Then the sitzprobe happened.

I don’t know what it is but put a band in a room with singers and joy is going to come in. It can’t help but come in. The horn section played their hearts out and Bob Marley’s music sounded oh so damn good in that room. We got the seal of approval from Mr. Neville Garrick, who was in the room jammin along and reliving his days with Bob. It felt like we were being doubly blessed to hear the music played so sweetly and have Neville in there dancing his heart out with us. Calling down Bob’s words of revolution and more importantly peace and love and hope never rang deeper and truer than after a scary night when all hell broke loose. There were quite tears shed but the most important thing that happened was this deep sense of hope and joy and love. We didn’t walk out of that theater afraid or feeling helpless. The timing of what we were doing and where we were and what was happening outside of our rehearsal walls was not lost on us at all. When the opening chords of One Love started that day I was almost unable to sing. And Get Up Stand Up that day had an immediacy and urgency that was not 40 years ago it was today, it was right now. It was a powerful day.

Which brings me to today. So tech is tech. And when you are climbing a mountain you take your time and tread carefully. This show is massive, with a million moving parts. One big ginormous moving part being the entire stage. So tech has been slow but we are putting all the pieces together and I hope it will be a thrilling and moving piece for the audience to experience. Tomorrow, we go into the streets with our show. Tomorrow, we are going to the heart of  where the rioting happened to help with the clean up. Our fearless director has allowed for us to leave tech for a little while and do something. We are also planning on singing some of Bob’s songs. We are going to sing the hopeful and empowering songs. We will not be singing Burnin and Lotting or I Shot the Sherrif so don’t even ask that question.

So Baltimore remains a mystery. A painful, beautiful mystery. It is not my home but it is until June and I am proud and happy to do my civic duty tomorrow. I tell you I have shed more tears on this project than any other before. I will say that most of them have been tears of absolute joy and pride. In the over 20 plus years that I have been acting, I have never played a Jamaican. I have seen Jamaicans on tv played for laughs and as the butt of a joke. Madge Sinclair was the rare exception to that rule and yes we know we stand on her shoulders during this project. I have cried because finally I have a project that is in my own voice. Here is a project that does not play my people and my country as a joke. It delves into the complexity of a young country finding itself and shows that there are many layers in the land of my birth. Beautiful, painful, scary, hopeful, tricky and tender layers. This tiny island in the Caribbean has birthed so many great people from these messy and wonderful layers and I am beyond proud to be able to be a part of this incredible project at this time.


5 comments to “Baltimore 2015 – Highs and Lows”

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  1. Thanks John-Andrew for sharing. Great thought and sentiment.

  2. Clark Brewer says: -#1

    Thanks for sharing.

    The timing of you being there…
    can’t help but think HP had some-thing
    to do with it!
    Thinking of you singing Bob Marley’s
    song Get Up Stand Up for Baltimorians
    Good luck with everything
    Bring Joy to the oppressed…..

  3. Don Decker says: -#1

    Mr. John Andrew, your words are so moving and the context in which this chapter of your life is unfolding leaves no doubt in my mind as to why the universe placed you in Baltimore at this moment. You have a gift….. many gifts!!! So happy you are getting this opportunity to share them in such a special way…. Love ya!

  4. Joan Iversen says: -#1

    John-Andrew, This is one of Gifford Booth’s sisters reading your blog. Thanks for feeling and caring so much!

  5. What a lovely blog. I’m excited about Marley and the future of the show, you are a wonderful person to work with and a wonderful new friend! Proud to work with you daily.

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