A squatter's story becomes theater in "The King of Howard Street"

Night after night, Anthony Williams watches his life recreated before his eyes on a stage on the same street where he once slept in abandoned buildings.

"It's crazy," he says, eyes widening. "It's absolutely nuts."

Before the opening night of "The King of Howard Street," the latest from Annex Theater and the inaugural production in the company's new location at Le Mondo, Williams—now a writer and a housing advocate, no longer homeless—recounts the events that brought him back to his old stomping ground.

Williams was born in East Baltimore nearly 54 years ago, and spent much of his childhood living in foster care and group homes, never meeting his birth parents. Considered to be a "problem child," he found himself repeatedly in therapy, speaking with psychiatrists and social workers and caseworkers, telling his story over and over again as he grew older. He got used to sharing everything that brought him shame and anger—the various forms abuse that he suffered, his struggles with addiction, the misery that for him was routine.

For over 20 years, he lived in bandos up and down Howard Street, a once-bustling commercial district now known for its dilapidated buildings, panhandlers, and drug trade on the verge of becoming an art and theater hub. He eventually left Baltimore and squatted in other cities around the country.

"I came back here strung out on crack probably about two years ago and again just started out from the bottom," Williams shouts over the roar of dirtbikes speeding down Howard, where he stands on the sidewalk outside the theater during the final rehearsal. "But this time, I started out writing. I've always knew how to come out of it, because of doing it so long and so many times—I said, let me write it this time. Let me write everybody's life, everybody I'm around, let me just write it. And I did."

He visited the library and read up on plays, and filled a series of composition notebooks with scenes from his daily life and portraits of the people he lived with in abandoned buildings, as well as poetry and music notes.

Then, over a year ago, Williams approached Evan Moritz, Annex's artistic director, outside the theater's previous space at 219 Park Ave. during intermission. They began to discuss writing, and Moritz left with three journals full of Williams' life.

"Even that was like, stupid, I thought at the time," Williams remembers. "I was like, shit man, I gave this guy a year and a half's worth of my writings."

But after six months, Moritz gave him a call—the play was a go. Annex brought on company member and playwright Ren Pepitone to mold Williams' story into a dramatic arc, and recruited veteran director and the new head of Baltimore School for the Arts' theater department, Rosiland Cauthen, to direct the production.

Williams' story enthralled Cauthen when she first read through the transcript, and on the eve of the premiere, she still shakes with excitement.

"There's so much stale stuff out there that's just been done again and again," she says. "I like the fresh, new, tingly feeling of 'I don't know what the hell we're doing, because it's never been done before, so let's figure it out.' That spirit of adventure and risk taking really drives me as an artist and I've been finding ways to drive that into the cast, into the process."

The best part, she adds, is directing the story as a site-specific work. Before it was cleaned up and fit with a stage, bar, and risers, Le Mondo's performance space, simply called Mondo, was not unlike the neighboring bandos Anthony once called home. All the elements were right there: They even recorded the sounds of the light rail passing just feet from the front entrance and the chiming of nearby church bells to enhance the play's soundtrack. And it didn't hurt to have the play's primary creator and subject on hand as a litmus test.

"I watch [Anthony] during rehearsal sometimes," Cauthen says, "and when his response is there I'm like, we got it."

Overlooking a performance during opening weekend, Williams glows as he watches himself, expertly played by Joshua Dixon, chat up his old family in the Howard street bando where the play is set. Even during moments when Dixon isn't imbuing his performance with Williams' brand of familial warmth and wisecracks—biting down on his tongue with every guffaw—but with the weight of Williams' pain, the anxiety he visibly carries in his body, the man looks on in awe.

"I did not know what it would turn into," he says.

What his writing turned into is not the fleeting impressions of poverty the audience encounters in Baltimore—and inevitably witnessed walking from their cars to the theater entrance, looking into the vacants and glassless windows on the other side of the light rail tracks, maybe passing panhandler. "The King of Howard Street" goes inside the bando, revealing the shell's interior that theatergoers are often fortunate enough to never see, and exposes the person behind the question: "Can I get 50 cents?"

"All they see is the after-effect of a homeless person walking down the street, a person nodding out, a person asking for change, a person that's dirty, a person that's pushing around shopping carts, people panhandling, asking for money, giving stories about how I need money for this reason or that reason," Williams says. "See people see that but they don't see the pain inside those people and what it takes for a person to actually get to the point to ask."

As we see onstage, it takes winter cold that Dixon as Anthony says "make me feel like I got hit by a truck"; sharing coffee cups; domestic violence; having drugged-out sex right next to your fellow squatters because where else will you find some semblance of pleasure or comfort?; getting shut out by shelters; finding the only available Section 8 housing to be marked by hordes of vermin or leaky sewage or bullet holes in the walls; doing everything to hold the vacant down and keep the city from welding the doors shut; diabetes and arthritis; being told to vacate the street because "yellow jackets" (i.e. Downtown Partnership employees who "don't know they just the tour guides and not the cops") have declared your presence a "safety issue"; watching members of your family drop dead, crushed by the weight of being repeatedly rejected from the world. It takes the words "crackhead," "bum," "piece of shit," "scum," "methhead," "loser," interrupting every thought.

The story of injustice here isn't told so much through Williams' biography or the battles he's fought with the city that insists on pushing him away, but through the tender bonds formed between the residents of the abandoned property, a family of which Williams is ostensibly the patriarch. That these individuals and the building are literally all he has, and the preciousness with which he treats both, speaks to the gravity of social neglect.

As director, Cauthen capitalizes on the varied and palpable talents of her 11-person cast, of which each member conjures evenly distinct but complex characters (some are composites of the 30-plus people Williams lived with on Howard Street over the years, Cauthen says, but all are based on real people). Mari Travis and Martique Smith, who play a constantly nodding out, drug-addicted couple living in the Howard Street bando, punctuate the cast's slumping across the stage with dance, somehow blurring the transitions between stoned stumbling and sweeping, elegant choreography. Between the building residents' banter, we hear Williams' own hymn-like lyrics as well as chilling renditions of 'Wayfaring Stranger' and other gospel songs sung by the elevating voices of Christian Harris as squatter Georgia and Elaine Foster as one of two buzzards (the other played by David Crandall, also the production's stage manager and sound designer) who blacken the stage with a reaper-like presence.

The result is more sensation than image; the audience begins to feel the heady impact of desolation—as well as the necessary warmth of kinship—and sees less of the mere act of begging, stumbling, nodding out. Through redevelopment (a state that marks Howard Street itself) and whitewashing and yellow jackets, the city of Baltimore often tries to hide or push away its unsightly poverty epidemic. "The King of Howard Street" counters those efforts by laying bare a more authentic feeling that fills this city.

"I wanna die in Baltimore," Williams says. "I wanna finish my life in Baltimore. Because that's my completion. I never thought I would actually come back to Baltimore, but I did. And when I came back, I came back successful—look." He gestures to the flier for his play pasted to the Mondo storefront window. "Who would think my writings would become 'The King of Howard Street'? Who would think that my life in Baltimore and the story of like 30 other people is going to matter? Now it's known, now the truth is out."

After decades feeling ashamed of his circumstances, Williams finally feels a sense of accomplishment. But it's not just "The King of Howard Street"—he's proud of his survival.

"You gotta have a level of strength to live to sleep in a building at night on that floor in there with five or six other people," he says. He turns to face the other side of Howard Street and points. "I did it in that building, and I did it in that building, and I did it in that building."

"The King of Howard Street" runs Thursdays through Sundays till June 4 at Annex Theater. For more information, visit baltimoreannextheater.org.

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