His story begins a decade ago in Brooklyn, where he grew up fighting in New York's public housing before discovering another kind of power. After three felony convictions and time served at Rikers Island, Lemon Andersen didn't have many places to turn except to his words. Now he's a Tony Award winner with a rave-reviewed one-man show called County of Kings.
He spoke with weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden about his life and the new independent documentary film about it, called simply, Lemon.
On his name, Lemon
"I'm a half-breed, you know. I am Puerto Rican and Norwegian from decent, and I grew up — born and raised — in New York City, and I stood out amongst my friends in my community, I was very blond-haired, white — and 'Lemonhead' was the name they gave me."
On the influence of his mother
"My mother, Millie, she was extremely liberal, from traditional Puerto Rican upbringing, you know, so there wasn't South Side in my house growing up. There was disco music and zodiac signs on the wall. She brought me out to dance, and you know, I was dancing with my mom at a young age.
"She taught me about soul and music, and she took me to parties in the street. Of course there was a kind of backlash to that lifestyle. She was getting high, and it was during the time when AIDS — it was really bad. It came down on my mother. We led a whole different life once the AIDS epidemic came.
"It's really about honor for me. I owe it to my mother, she just put a lot of fire in me. So when I'm onstage, and you see that side, it's really because I've been really blessed to have a mother who taught me how to fight hard."
On discovering poetry
"I was in a juvenile detention center at Rikers Island and there was an anthology written by the inmates called The Pen, and, you know, I had a crush on a girl and she left me when I was incarcerated, and I found this poem in this anthology that talked about having your heart broken and being incarcerated, so I related to the poem so much that I started to take on more poetry. And I found out that poetry was really beautiful at putting these thoughts and words together when you couldn't do it yourself. ... It showed up like a boss, like when you're looking for a job, and you're knocking on all these doors and no one wants to hire you, and you're tainted with a past, so poetry showed up. ... Then I found out that poetry and theater have had a relationship for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so I am part of carrying that torch."
From fame to food stamps
"It was tough on me more than actually losing my mom growing up because I had children, and so this opportunity to ... write a new chapter in my life came, and I started to develop this staged memoir, and the next thing you knew I really found my kind of position in the sun, as I call it."