Star of “The Wire” hooked by the streets of Baltimore

David Simon (R) and Ed Burns (L) on the set of The Wire

By Alan Bean

I learned about The Wire from former homicide detective Ed Burns.  He was sitting next to me at a convening of people concerned about the abuse of snitch testimony. “What do you do?” I asked.  When he told me he co-produced The Wire I said, “what’s the wire?”

Burns took my gnorance in stride.  “It’s an HBO drama about the war on drugs,” he replied.  I suspect I wasn’t the first person Burns had met who hadn’t heard of The Wire, a production widely regarded as the best dramatic series in the history of television.  The show had a rabidly loyal following, but it never rivalled HBO productions like The Sopranos.  The subject matter was gritty, intense, profane and troubling.  But from the moment we popped in the first rented DVD, my wife and I were hooked.

Sonja Sohn working with Baltimore street kids

Sonja Sohn played Detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs on The Wire, a role she initially struggled with.  Like the “corner boys” of Baltimore featured in The Wire, Sohn grew up in a world marked by deprivation, street hustling, violence and fear.  According to this Washington Post article, playing a cop was hard for Sohn; in the world she was raised in, law enforcement was the enemy.

The Wire played for five critically acclaimed seasons before Ed Burns and co-producer David Simon moved on to other things.  Sohn couldn’t move on.  The streets of Baltimore were wrapped around her soul.  This feature article in the Post is worthy of your time, and your reflection. 

After ‘The Wire’ ended, actress Sonja Sohn couldn’t leave Baltimore’s troubled streets behind

By Phil Zabriskie, Published: January 27

Sonja Sohn stood in front of her audience, confident about the performance she was about to give. This wasn’t surprising, considering her history as an actress who was just coming off a five-year run as Det. Shakima “Kima” Greggs on HBO’s “The Wire,” one of the most critically acclaimed shows in television history. To project professionalism, she had pulled her hair back and was wearing pressed slacks and a collared shirt. Her motivation was clear, her research was done, and after many months of preparation, she was ready.There was no script, though. Her “stage” was a classroom at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, and her “audience” — made up of teenagers and young adults whose lives could have beenmined for “The Wire” — wasn’t about to grant her anything based on her past credits. Not 18-year-old Tyrea Daniels, who guesses he had been arrested eight or nine times by then for selling drugs and stealing cars; 16-year-old Latavia Cornish, who says she was “always outside, stealing, getting locked up”; or 21-year-old Sean Hawkins, who had been “thuggin’ it up” since he dropped out of high school, “selling drugs, partying, stealing, robbing everything in sight.” They and about 15 people from similar backgrounds were slouched in their chairs, warily eyeing Sohn and each other.

This was late in 2009, during the first session of ReWired for Life, a program Sohn had conceived of years earlier and devoted herself to building after “The Wire” signed off. She hadn’t been ready to leave the show behind, neither what it stood for nor the Baltimore streets on which it had filmed. It was more than that, though. “I had an extraordinarily strong sense of purpose,” she says, in the same half-purr, half-growl voice familiar to fans of “The Wire.” “My entire life had become about this.”

All of which meant little to Daniels, Cornish and Hawkins. It was cool to meet Kima because they had loved the show and loved seeing their reality depicted on screen. And free food was never a bad thing. Beyond that, they didn’t expect much. They had all been prodded to come by probation officers, counselors and parents.

“We are talking about a throwaway population that adults think are too far gone,” Sohn says later. “We’re talking about kids that people have given up on over and over and over again. They don’t feel like anyone is there for them. They may have parents who love them, but they’ve been falling back on themselves for so long that if you come in front of their faces talking, and not backing it up with action, you just become another one of the people who have disappointed them.”

Sohn, then in her early 40s, was certain that if the right people came to ReWired at the right time, they could benefit immensely, maybe even transform their lives. She didn’t expect it to happen in that first session, but she believed in herself, she believed in her plan, and she believed that transformation, even here, was possible.

Hawkins, for one, wasn’t buying it. He had grown up near Green Mount Cemetery on the east side, then over by Walbrook Junction on the west side. His father was in jail. His mother and her boyfriend encouraged him, but their voices faded when he stepped out the door and walked past one boarded-up house after another. He was clearly smart, but he quit school because the people he saw getting ahead — getting paid, getting girls, getting respect — were the guys in the game, hustling. After a string of arrests left him facing the possibility of a long prison stretch, however, he began to see things differently. He was about to become a father, and his girlfriend already had another child, meaning he was on the verge of abandoning his kids just like his father had done. He resolved to make changes, but GED programs and job hunting made him feel, he says, like “a blind man in a black room trying to find a black hat.”

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