Robert Chew, who came to be best-known as The Wire's Proposition Joe, was one of those talents you could easily underestimate. If you didn't already know how much of a powerhouse he was onstage, you could easily pass the quiet, mysterious man sitting in the back of the Arena Players' theater. I'd known him since I was a teenager. As a theater major at the Baltimore School for the Arts, I'd often hang around right up the street at Arena Players with friends who were in the youth theater program. It was always clear that Mr. Chew was not to be fucked with. He took acting seriously, and if you dared to step into his arena, you better take it seriously as well. I liked acting but I was always a rapper, an emcee. I was not even going to pretend to be ready for Mr. Chew's classes. But, just as often as I'd see him bring students to tears, I'd see him make students laugh. I've seen him feed students and encourage them not to give up. More than that, I've seen him instill confidence in a young actor from Baltimore who would have never had it if not for his coaching.
I left Baltimore the summer after my senior year to serve in the military. When I returned four years later, my acting bug was itching me bad. My godbrother Robert Lee Hardy and I went to Troy Burton, the director of Arena Players' youth theater program at the time, and pitched the idea of doing an original play with an all-male cast that ranged in age from 18 to 35. We wanted to do something that would bring black people to the theater, particularly our generation. We came up with a title, A Real Nigga Show. We decided to explore the stereotypes associated with black men in America, the origin of the controversial "N" word, and we would provide comedic relief while showcasing African-American male actors working together to deliver a message. Arena Players did not want to do the play if we kept the title, so we did it at Theatre Project.
It was Troy's suggestion to have Robert Chew open the play and deliver the Willie Lynch Letter. Chew would also do a hilarious monologue in the second act, entitled "Nigga in the Basement," where a 35-year-old man who drives an Escalade talks about the ups and downs of living in his mother's house . . . in the basement. I loved watching him rehearse. Always prepared, always on point, and always willing to give you pointers whether you asked or not. He was definitely the vet of the cast. On the nights of the show, we'd often peek from backstage, studying his comedic timing and his ability to take an audience from gut-busting laughter to serious-as-cancer in seconds. It was always clear that he was put on this earth to do this. There are artists who do their art for therapy, or fun, or out of some hereditary obligation, and there are artists who do it because they know they were born to do it. Robert Chew was the latter.
One night after a show, we were backstage changing and putting props back when the topic of straight actors playing gay roles came up. I went on about how, if you'd do that then you must be gay or curious and boldly took my stance, saying that "no amount of money would make me play a gay role." Chew, who had been quiet during our conversation, immediately replied, "then you're not a real actor." It got quiet backstage, my heart dropped, and I didn't know how to respond. It was the moment I feared, being called a fraud in front of everybody. He let the awkward silence linger for a minute and then went on to say that an actor, a true actor should be able to play any role he is given, because the actor's job is to tell a story, not your story, not the story you think it should be, but the story that is written. He said, "If you're not gay, what's your fear? That someone will think you are? If they do, then you did your job." It made so much sense to me, and while I wasn't going to run out and start looking for a chance to play James Baldwin, I gained an even greater respect for the art form.
This year marks 10 years since we first did A Real Nigga Show. My godbrother reached out to Chew to talk about our idea of bringing the cast back together and reworking the script. He was shocked at Robert's response, "You all don't need me in the play." Today, I wonder if he knew he wouldn't be here. Through the years I've had the opportunity to share many laughs with my unofficial teacher, including ones about me taking a gay role one day. His death has put a hole in our hearts. We lost an amazing teacher, a priceless human being, and a powerful thespian. Most only knew him as Prop Joe, but the beautiful thing about Robert Chew is that he trained so many young actors from Baltimore. If you pay close attention in the coming years, you'll see it. Some people leave money and possessions behind, some leave having been given their flowers well before their time, and some leave us quietly in the middle of the night with an arsenal of lessons, techniques, and words of wisdom to carry us through for the rest of our lives. I am just one person who learned from him. There are many more, far more talented than I am. Watch. Robert Chew will be living for many, many years. R.I.P. Mr. Chew. Baltimore loves you and thanks you. Love always.
Adapted from an essay published on citypaper.com in January.