A Winning Proposition

Robert Chew, Best Known As Proposition Joe On 'The Wire,' Gives Youth In Baltimore A Master Class In Theater

July 19, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Let's go straight to Body Electric," Robert Chew tells the three dozen teens sitting cross-legged on the orange carpeting in front of him. "I want to see - I'll wait until you've stopped talking - I want to see how much you've retained and how much you've forgotten."

He makes a sweeping motion with his left arm while he provides the countdown: "Five, six, seven, eight."

But the kids crammed into the windowless room at Arena Players are tired. They've just finished a rigorous choreography class that ran overtime, and when they launch into I Sing the Body Electric, the result is more of a blown fuse.

After just a few bars, Chew throws up his arms in exasperation. "Are any of you alive this morning?" he says.

The aspiring actors, dancers and singers enrolled in Arena Players' Youtheatre think of the actor as "Mr. Chew," but millions of fans nationwide know him best as Proposition Joe Stewart from The Wire. For five seasons between 2002 and 2008, the actor achieved the nearly impossible - he made the television audience root for a character whom they'd loathe in real life.

Joe might have been a drug kingpin and master manipulator, but it was fun to see him sweat when, once again, he was in danger of becoming the subject of a newspaper obituary. And it was even more fun to watch the wheels in Joe's head whir as he double-crossed his way out of trouble.

It's been more than a year since the series wrapped up, but fans still pull out their cell phones to photograph the 49-year-old Chew when he walks into a McDonald's restaurant near his Northeast Baltimore home.

The actor can even count comedian Chris Rock among his admirers; Rock performed in Charm City in February 2008, shortly after Prop Joe met his long-delayed demise on the orders of rival dealer Marlo Stanfield.

"I can't believe they killed Proposition Joe!" Rock said in mock horror from the stage of the Lyric Opera House. "Marlo must be stopped!"

Chew's performance was that memorable. And the actor is in his 18th year of teaching Baltimore teens how to build theatrical characters.

Mr. Chew is the man who insists that the kids be on time and bring a tape recorder to class, the man who requires that every single note out of their mouths ring the stake, the man who pushes them relentlessly to achieve their potential.

"Watching a young kid develop into a great artist is pure joy," Chew says.

"Every kid has something great in them, though they don't always know what it is. I listen to them and watch them, and then I show them how they've already succeeded. I might tell one girl, 'I heard you screaming out in the hall, so I know you can hit that high note.' "

There are about 80 youngsters ages 4 to 17 enrolled in the summer program. Chew works with the oldest group, ages 13 and older. They'll rehearse five hours a day for seven weeks preparing Makin' It, a musical about students at New York's High School of Performing Arts that eventually was renamed Fame.

It's a standing joke at Arena's headquarters at 801 McCulloh St. that the annual Youtheatre summer musical is better acted, sung and danced than are the community theater productions starring grown-up performers.

Chew has immense affection and respect for Arena's adult troupe - it's the oldest African-American community theater in the U.S., and he once performed with the company - but when the question is put to him, he doesn't equivocate.

"There's no question about it, the kids are absolutely better than the adults," Chew says. "The adults have a love for the craft and an interest in it, but, unlike our students, they were never trained."

It's a pity, in a way, that there never was occasion for Prop Joe to break into song as he was plying the drug trade on the mean streets of Baltimore, because Chew has perfect pitch and a pure, natural tenor.

"For as long as I can remember, I could hear rhythms and I could hear harmonies, and I was always in tune," he says.

But there wasn't much money for singing lessons. Chew's father was in prison, and his mother, a geriatric nurse, was the sole support for Robert and his three sisters.

"Basically, I had to create my own opportunities," he says. Young Robert got himself admitted to Peabody Conservatory but lost his scholarship after less than a year because of poor grades. He did better at Patterson High School and, after graduating, he enrolled at Morgan State University, where he performed with the famous choir directed by Nathan Carter.

But Chew dropped out of college before his senior year. Finding money for tuition was a struggle, and he was starting to get paying gigs as an actor.

From 1992 to 1998, Chew performed with TheatreWorks USA, the nation's largest professional children's theater troupe. Some performers look down their noses at kids' productions, but Chew loves this type of theater, and he believes it matters.

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