‘Lemon’ on PBS’ Voces Starting 19 October

“Right now, I’m creating an opportunity for me and my family,” announces Lemon Andersen. Newly released from prison back to the projects, he means to make changes, to look ahead, to survive. The hope and the promise sound familiar enough, at the start of Lemon. But Laura Brownson and Beth Levison’s documentary, premiering 19 October on Voces and available on DVD and VOD, goes on to complicate this story, exploring how the collisions of poverty and celebrity produce stereotypes, myths, and also forms of truth.

As Lemon pursues his post-prison dream, he lands a gig on Russell Simmons’ Deaf Poetry Jam. The TV show leads to a Broadway show, and then a Tony Award, and the slam poets and performers who have come up from the streets are giddy with success and money. Lemon describes how great it was, that he bought big TVs and everyone liked him. When the show ends, he’s out of money and back in the hood. Specifically, he and his wife Marilyn and their two young daughters move in with her brother and their mother. Still, Lemon insists that he can make a living performing. He finds backing from the American Place Theater’s David Kener, who proclaims that theater needs to “talk to kids.” To do that, he says, “The conventions don’t work, we need new voices desperately.” Kener finds one of these voices in Lemon. Or so he thinks.

The movie documents Lemon’s work on his one-man show, County of Kings (The Beautiful Struggle), in which he looks at his relationship with his mother (who died of cancer when he was only 14), his struggles in the neighborhood (drugs, gangster-posing), and his troubled relationship with his brother. The autobiography is filtered through poetry, noisy and brilliant and compelling. He’s good on stage, the show seems a likely success. The problems, as you might expect, have to do mounting the show, with funding and directing, with corporate supporting. Meetings with producers and other people involved in the process tend to end on reaction shots by Lemon, looking disgruntled, just before he notes in voiceover how little these other people — frequently white women — understand his work and experience.

At the same time, the film also considers Lemon’s difficulties at home. Marilyn’s insights are very helpful, for you, anyway, even as he withdraws, sullen and resentful of deals falling through and threats the show won’t go on. When she sees they’re not communicating, she notes that he has his writing, in notebooks, as a means to work things out for himself: she begins writing on the bedroom wall, an effort to get him to notice that she has ideas and reactions too. The film takes its cue from Lemon, extolling Marilyn’s embodiment of his essential support system. And so you’re reminded that performance — on stage and in the home, on the street and for cameras — is always an effort to communicate, to forge a relationship.

RATING 8 / 10