Actor's show the result of wandering eyes

Voyeur: Brandon Welch's `Welcome to Baltimore, Hon' is a product of years of observing city life.

April 03, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Perhaps you spotted him at a bar - fellow with a shaved head and arms like a wrestler. What was he up to?

If it was Brandon Welch, he was doing what actors, writers and other students of human behavior often do. He was watching, listening, seeking stories, characters.

"You can talk about anything with people who don't know you," says Welch. "It's like being in an AA meeting."

Welch has been known over the years to wander Baltimore's streets at all hours, stepping from bar to bar to bus station, to anywhere the city's life might reveal itself. He picked up the practice while studying for his master of fine arts degree in theater at Towson University, and now brings some of the results of his voyeurism to a couple of local performance spots.

FOR THE RECORD - The performance times of two events were incorrectly reported yesterday in the Today section. Air Dance Bernasconi performs at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A show including Welcome to Baltimore, Hon by Brandon Welch and Here Lies Dorothy Parker by Niki Lee opens Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St. The Sun regrets the errors.

At the Creative Alliance on April 5 and 6 - on a bill with Niki Lee's Here Lies Dorothy Parker - and at Mission Space, on the weekends from April 12-27, Welch performs Welcome to Baltimore, Hon, billed loosely as an "examination of Baltimore's national `white-trash' image."

Perhaps stronger on image than examination, the hour-long show of character sketches portrays a slice of Baltimore from the perspective of a 35-year-old man who spent much of his youth at punk-rock clubs and bars.

For a few years he sang - all right, "I screamed," he says - for a band that changed its name from Darwin's Theory to Spot Marks the X, then for bands named Sandwich and Wicker Pig. Welch worked as road manager on two national tours for the Blue Meanies, and, between clubs here and elsewhere, saw his share of brawls, blood, skinheads, punks, metal heads, druggies, drinkers and lost souls.

In his sunglasses, black leather jacket, cargo pants and heavy black shoes (steel toes beneath the wing tips), Welch himself looks like someone you might cross the street to avoid. Once he removes the sunglasses and starts talking, though, a gentle soul steps out from behind the regalia. Except for the powerful and the phony, he tends to withhold judgment of his fellow humans.

The child of schoolteachers, Welch grew up in the Lutherville area where, "there wasn't anything to do after dark." Baltimore City beckoned: "Going into the city as a kid was a big deal."

Even at his relatively young age, he can honestly say that the Baltimore he fell in love with as a teen-ager has disappeared. A city tour conducted in his road-worn Saturn unfolds in a series of defunct rock clubs in West Baltimore, downtown and Hampden. Who knew there was such a thing as punk nostalgia?

Welcome to Baltimore, Hon presents a melange of the music scene Welch knew and what has emerged as the prevailing national image of Baltimore. That is: white and blue-collar.

For this, one can largely thank John Waters, who has made a career of his preoccupation with Formstone and bad hair. In the spirit of civic pride and free enterprise, businesses like Cafe Hon in Hampden have elevated the white matron with the beehive and retro eyeglasses to something approaching a municipal logo. Note the absence of a black presence in the popular image of a city that is two-thirds African-American.

Welch portrays no black characters in his show, as the performance considers this "white-trash" image. While he loves Baltimore, Welch is not reluctant to acknowledge that de facto segregation and tacit racism are part of life here, as in many other American cities.

"A lot of the racism in Baltimore is ingrained in a casual level," says Welch. He recalls inviting some black friends to see a rock show in Hampden years ago. They declined, he remembers, saying, "the Dragon lives in Hampden," referring to the Ku Klux Klan.

Who knows if the Klan has ever had a presence in Hampden? The point is his friends saw it that way, Welch says.

Racial division enters the picture in one of the portraits in the show, as a happy-talking real estate broker from Towson speaks to a group of salesmen about how they should sell the city to prospective buyers. He provides an extensive list of ethnic neighborhoods without once mentioning African-Americans, and goes on to discourage the group from actually bringing anyone into these ethnic enclaves, lest they stumble on one of the "sketchy" sections en route.

"Talk about the neighborhoods," he says. "Stay in the Inner Harbor."

Welch's point is this is what you might expect from a guy from Towson.

Most of the other characters are rooted in town. There's Donny, for instance, who has a Bawlamer accent thick as a mid-Atlantic summer haze.

"The thing is, you probably know Donny," says Welch, suggesting he might well be your cousin, a high school pal, a brother. "He's not a bad guy, he's just a dude who makes these ridiculous choices."

Donny sells marijuana to musicians and muddles through life. His story about witnessing a handgun killing while waiting for a traffic light on Greenmount Avenue is drawn from an experience relayed by friends of Welch's.

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