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Last November, 34-year-old Lamont Carey was struck with an idea for a new television series: He would employ amateur actors and guerrilla camera techniques to take an ear-to-the-ground look into the lives of D.C.’s drug lords and lawmen. That concept sounded familiar to one visitor to Carey’s Web site, who posed the question (though not the question mark): “Is it a wannabe The Wire.”
In the eight months since its conception, the “W” word has become a bit of a sore spot for Carey’s cast and crew. Stan Coles, who plays drug dealer “M.T.” on the show—character motivations include attempting to “stay pretty” in a “dirty game”—responded to the hater: “IN NO SHAPE, FORM, OR FASHION IS OUR SHOW LIKE THE WIRE. IS IT THE SAME CONCEPT? YES? BUT IT’S NOT CALLED THE WIRE 2?”
The series, in fact, is called Laws of the STREET, and it is nothing like David Simon’s television series, which employed amateur actors and guerrilla camera techniques to take an ear-to-the-ground look into the lives of Baltimore’s drug lords and lawmen. Laws of the STREET’s actors, for one, are real amateurs. “We don’t have any A-listers or any B-listers,” says Carey. “I’m reaching out to the pool of talent in Washington, not only the youth, not only the elders, but also the ex-offenders,” says Carey.
Many castmembers’ only film credits are bit parts on a television program shot not far from D.C. The guy who plays a drug enforcer on Laws of the STREET can be spied in the background of an episode of The Wire as (spoiler alert!) Omar stabs a guy in a prison lunch line. Laws actors Charles Smith and Keith Erik both appeared briefly on The Wire as Baltimore Sun reporters. Eight-year-old Roland Haywood, who plays good-hearted street kid Divine on Laws, never appeared on The Wire; according to his résumé, he has made his way by “befriending well-known insiders like Nathan Corbett from HBO’s The Wire.”
Antwon Temoney, who plays drug kingpin “Light Skin” on Laws of the STREET—definitely nothing like Wire drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield—insists that some castmembers’ experience on Simon’s show won’t affect Carey’s product. “It’s gonna be different from The Wire because it’s gonna be better than The Wire,” says Temoney, whose acting credits include three episodes as a drug dealer on The Wire. “I don’t know where David Simon got his information from, but Lamont Carey knows what he’s talking about.”
Carey—a spoken word artist, television producer, writer, actor, Internet radio host, talent agent, author, and activist—knows what he’s talking about because he’s also an ex-con. When Carey was 16 years old, he was charged with robbery and assault with intent to murder in Prince George’s County and served 11 years in prison. Robbery, attempted murder, and prison life are just a few of the many issues Carey hopes to address on the show, which will also delve into drug dealing, pedophilia, rape, gambling, child abuse, and depression. Take that, David Simon!
Since his release from prison, Carey has quietly built an alternate empire, one of actors and performers instead of addicts and dealers. Carey’s own accomplishments include a stint on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, a book of poetry, Why I Keep U a Secret, an Internet radio show “for crazy people with issues,” a prison pen-pal outreach program, and a three-episode arc on The Wire, where he played a drug dealer who loses a game of craps and exclaims “Oh, shit!”
But in his six years and three months on parole, Carey says he hasn’t forgotten his upbringing. “I was born in Southeast, but I was really raised in prison,” explains Carey. The pilot will be shot in some of Carey’s old District haunts, from the area behind Cardozo High School to Benning Road NE, which Carey is petitioning the government to close off for a scene where actors will wield fake weapons in the middle of the street. “I don’t want to get shot by accident by the real police,” says Carey. According to Temoney, the local locations give Laws of the STREETS another one-up on Simon’s enterprise. “All the scenes are filmed here in Washington, D.C.,” says Temoney. “The Wire was filmed in Baltimore. So this is authentic. This is all right here.”
For Carey, authenticity is a matter of depth, not location. “The Wire, the episodes I saw were realistic, but I don’t think it went deep enough,” he says. “We’re gonna show the hows and the whys. In some shows there’s no other way but to deal drugs and to kill. We’re gonna show some other options.” On the series’ Web site, each of Laws’ 42 roles is described with a character-forming question next to a nickname. Some questions, like the one for hit man “Madness,” are hypothetical: “They say pressure burst pipe or make diamonds but what does pulling a trigger do?” The plight of low-level drug dealer “Earl” is more straight-forward: “What happens when a killer has an appettite for underaged girls? What happens with both of his desires take control?”
On-set, Laws’ castmembers have embraced their street alter-egos, forming joking rivalries between on-air crews and calling one another by their nicknames on the show. Says Fabian Scott, who plays “Squirrel,” a man looking to “find out what true success is before his rap sheet becomes longer than he freedom”: “They call me Squirrel because I’m crazy. I’m like a crazy person.” Chris Kennedy, who plays a character simply known as “Whisper,” doesn’t know why he’s called that. “I have no idea. Maybe he’s, you know, kind of quiet.” Carey’s own character is a bit closer to his own experience; in addition to his writing and directing duties, Carey also plays “Slim,” a man who struggles between “returning to the street” and “going straight” and is totally nothing like The Wire’s Dennis “Cutty” Wise.
Still, trading Simon’s television pedigree for street cred means that getting network attention has been significantly more difficult for Carey and company. Carey has already written 11 episodes of a planned 13 for Laws’ first season, but he has been filming the pilot episode since February. Carey hopes to finish the pilot within the year and start shopping it around to networks like Showtime and HBO (home of The Wire). For now, the cast has started rehearsing a reworked stage version of the pilot, which Carey plans to present at the Page-to-Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center in February. “We never planned to have this onstage, but whatever door we can open, I’m gonna go through,” says Carey. “We’re gonna steal that shit.”
With no budget, elementary equipment, and a cast of 42 amateur actors, the road to television has been slow. Carey has already lost some of his unpaid actors to homework, double shifts, or other extenuating circumstances. Months ago, one principal—the actor who played hitman “Madness”—had to be replaced suddenly in the middle of shooting. “For whatever reason, we had to replace him,” says production coordinator Andrea Camille. Castmember Lorita Jackson gets more specific: “Madness was arrested,” she says. (A new “Madness,” Rob Green, is now on duty.)
Despite the setbacks, Carey is confident the show will find a home on the air—and become a hit. “It’s gonna be like nothing you’ve ever seen,” he says. “I would absolutely compare it to nothing at all.”
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