Same set, new script for The Wire's Sonja Sohn

Actress turned activist still in Baltimore, trying to fix the problems depicted in "The Wire"

October 11, 2012|Lionel Foster

"Holy crap. What was I thinking when I decided to take this on?"

That's what Sonja Sohn said last week shortly after I joined her at a coffee shop. Fortunately, she wasn't having second thoughts about our interview but wondering how to handle a mishap with a printer that might hamper the promotion of a volunteer event she was planning now that the battery on her laptop was dead. Her phone soon followed suit.

Ms. Sohn is better known to some as Shakima Greggs, a detective from the HBO series "The Wire," a five-season indictment of America's war on drugs that examined poverty, political corruption and structural racism from the back alley to the penthouse in minute detail and made Baltimore more infamous than it already was. If "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" had been set in an American city, they could hardly have been more dramatic.

Ms. Sohn has done well since she said goodbye to Detective Greggs. Work has been steady. So why was she worried about 1,000 color posters? Because she's trying to make Baltimore better than it was when the cameras stopped rolling.

In 2008, after the final season of "The Wire," Ms. Sohn and two of her cast members went to North Carolina to campaign for Barack Obama. After returning to Baltimore, surprised by the size of the megaphone that her association with the highly praised show had given her and itching to make a difference, she founded ReWired for Change, a nonprofit organization that works to empower youth and families from underserved communities to better their lives and conditions in their neighborhoods.

It is a decidedly grass-roots approach and an irresistible story: A woman who knew troubled urban communities firsthand and could recall nightmarish scenes from her own childhood in Newport News, Va., played a character in a TV show that came to define a city before inserting herself as a character in that city's improvement efforts. But it is the very show that sealed her celebrity that prompts the question: How successful can she be?

"The Wire" portrays a small universe of people at the mercy of systems. There's U.S. drug policy, the disappearance of working-class jobs in the face of globalization, and impoverished communities, racially segregated years after Jim Crow. City government is broken. The school system is broken. And every character is flawed and fascinating and beautiful. The show respects the fact that ambition, pride and the need to seek validation are basic human impulses, but when the means to act on these impulses legally are unequally distributed, people work at cross purposes — and the consequences are deadly. A lucky few can change their trajectory, but on the whole, it's a zero-sum game.

"That may be where my belief in the human spirit differs from what was portrayed in 'The Wire,'" Ms. Sohn says when I ask if the series implicitly argues against small-scale projects like those she supports. "I believe that any endeavor that you put your whole heart and best effort into is destined to succeed." She credits the many people who helped her when she was young, insisting, "If you inspire one individual to step a little bit further into the light, then you have not failed."

She's putting that faith to the test again with The Baltimore Wake Up, a project developed by ReWired for Change and the violence prevention program Why Murder? Through the Wake Up, groups of five to 10 people can sign up for technical assistance and small grants of $50 per person to conduct neighborhood improvement projects.

"This event is about the coalition's belief that citizens who may not have training, education and access ... can still make a difference," says Ms. Sohn. "What we want to do is help develop an activated population of people who have the confidence and belief in themselves to work with … leaders in the political establishment to [create] a joint vision of what this city should be."

Putting the types of residents who might be overlooked on a more equal footing with the powers that be — it's ambitious. As she describes her ultimate goal, Ms. Sohn seems to be thinking out loud, but this idea, if it's not in step with the logic of "The Wire," is arguably an extension of it. In that show, politicians promise safer streets, cops chase corner boys, drug gangs terrorize entire neighborhoods and on and on, ad infinitum. But what if you could put all of these characters in the same scene? What would happen then?

The Baltimore Wake Up launches this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at ConneXions School for the Arts, 2801 North Dukeland St. All are welcome. Go to http://www.baltimorewakeup.org for more information.

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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