His name is Lemon because of the once-yellow mop of hair on his head, not because of the defective nature of his character.
In a family that already had a “black sheep,” Lemon Anderson is the “Oliver Twist with the Kool-Aid smile.” But this Oliver Twist is a three-time felon who served at Rikers Island, the city of New York’s jail complex.
Anderson, born Andrew, grew up in the Brooklyn projects. His parents were heroin addicts who died from AIDS, and he fell into dealing crack in his neighborhood. The young Puerto Rican dropped out of high school, and hustled the streets with his older brother, Peter.
“I didn’t get into trouble because I was looking for something to do,” he says in the movie, “Lemon,” showing this weekend at Aspen Filmfest. “I got into trouble because I wasn’t going to eat that night.”
His last stint in jail — a year at Rikers for dealing crack — triggered him to buckle down and begin a process of self-education.
“The problem with people who get locked up is that they get comfortable. I used that to push me to do something different,” he says. “I felt like it was the perfect time to read well. It took one poem to change my life.”
And thus unfolds the unlikely story of an ex-convict who struggles to make it in New York’s edgy, and over-saturated, theater world.
Anderson turned to the Public Theater, a nonprofit cultural institution in New York aimed at both developing new artists and showcasing classic works. There, he developed a piece called “County of Kings,” and the program debuted through the theater’s Under the Radar series.
The Public Theater staff sees potential and drive, with the director calling his effect “earth-shattering,” but they’re not sure they see mass appeal. It is this plotline that carries much of “Lemon,” a documentary produced by Beth Levison and Laura Brownson of Dandelion Films.
His successful workshopping at the Public Theater led him to “Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam,” which ran for seven months on Broadway and six seasons on HBO. And, it introduced him to Spike Lee, who eventually cast Anderson in a handful of movies and became a benefactor for his fledgling “County of Kings” show.
“Lemon is a wordsmith, but it’s also his performing of the words,” says Lee.
His eloquence matches his grit, giving the audience a raw taste of his tumultuous past while offering hope for the future. With a wife and two children at home, Anderson is not only left to fend for himself, but to now provide for his family as well.
The film is an honest look at the strenuous climb that it takes to make it in the arts world, especially when life has already been an uphill battle. But perhaps it’s this tenacity and unfiltered look at reality that really serves Anderson in the end.
“Lemon” plays Friday at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale (8 p.m.) and Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House (2 p.m.)
Another highlight: If you’re up for an 11 a.m. movie, don’t miss “The War of the Buttons” at the Wheeler. A fake war between two child gangs unfolds in occupied France, but as the leader falls in love with Violette, a young Jewish girl in danger of being discovered, he must face the realities of adulthood around him.
Presented by Aspen Film
Friday, 8 p.m. at the Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)
Saturday, 2 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House