Felicia Pearson: When life mirrors art

Is there no escaping the often fatal attraction of Baltimore's mean streets?

  • Felicia Pearson
Felicia Pearson (Paul Schiraldi Photography )
March 11, 2011

The arrest of actress Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, along with more than 60 others, on drug distribution charges Thursday surely came as a disappointment to her many fans in Baltimore and around the country. But it could not have been entirely unexpected.

Ms. Pearson, a self-admitted former drug dealer and convicted murderer by the time she was 16, reportedly had been trying to turn her life around after her acting talents were discovered a few years ago by the producers of HBO's "The Wire." And she is, of course, presumed to be innocent until proved otherwise. Still, her most recent run-in with the law can only be seen as a setback to those efforts.

Over the years, there have been many instances of people who by dint of talent, hard work and determination manage to overcome the circumstances of a difficult past and go on to achieve great things. But such successes are never guaranteed — or irreversible. It would be a shame if Ms. Pearson's undoubted gifts were to go to waste as a consequence of ill-considered actions.

On the set of "The Wire," at least, those gifts were apparent in Ms. Pearson's frighteningly authentic yet oddly poignant portrayal of a cold-blooded killer for a local drug crew. Her character combined an almost wispy insouciance with a deadly intent that was terrifying in its remorselessness. Television viewers had never seen anything quite like her before. Despite her lack of any formal training as an actor, she became an unlikely star, even an icon of female empowerment in a violent, male-dominated world years before Swedish actress Noomi Rapace astonished movie audiences with her audacity in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

The intense realism Ms. Pearson brought to her role was hard won from a troubled childhood and the brutal life on the streets and in prison that shaped her young adulthood. In her life, as in her art, she appears neither to have asked for nor expected any special favors from fate on account of her sex. There is a smoldering anger just below the surface of her outwardly placid character in "The Wire" that seems fueled by equal parts of unspeakable trauma and a thwarted tenderness.

By the time the series ended, many people who admired her gritty television persona were quietly rooting for her newfound celebrity to launch her on a fresh start in life. Yet few people appreciate the staggering effort required to achieve such a transformation of the self and then guard it against temptation.

Christopher Wallace, otherwise known to millions around the world as the Notorious B.I.G., reached the pinnacle of pop stardom, rapping about the fatal attraction of Brooklyn's mean streets, but that didn't keep him from becoming a victim of the thug culture he celebrated. Closer to home, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel High School basketball star John Crowder was on the threshold of a huge career as a college — and maybe, one day, professional — athlete when he moved from the safety of a cousin's house back to his old neighborhood. He was found shot dead a few weeks later, blocks from his grandmother's home.

Near the end of Season 5 of "The Wire," Ms. Pearson's fictional boss, a ruthless drug kingpin named Marlo Stanfield, turns down a golden opportunity to go legit when his lawyer offers to launder his ill-gotten gains and set him up as a respectable businessman. Marlo is mightily tempted, but in the end the thrilling allure of the streets proves too strong; he slips out of a gathering of his new business partners one night and secretly makes his way back to his old drug corner, where he imperiously disperses some rivals for his turf. In the scuffle, he suffers a minor cut to the hand, and when he notices the blood flowing his expression suddenly changes to one of jubilant elation: This is the only lifestyle that makes him feel truly alive.

No one should underestimate the enduring attraction of the streets for those who have lived by its code, which is akin to a narcotic addiction. It is still capable of swallowing not only their hopes and dreams, and the prayers of their loved ones, but also their last dollar, their last dime — and if they are not careful, their lives as well.

We can all appreciate the hope of Ms. Pearson's fans that this matter ends well, and that ultimately she is cleared of all charges so she can get on with her life. But she was in a world that will always be dangerous to the young men and women it ensnares. Whatever the outcome of this case — or its impact on Ms. Pearson's career as an artist — her fans should also be grateful simply for the fact that the gift of life is, mercifully, still hers to lead.

Glenn McNatt

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