ACADEMIC INTEREST If The Wire exposed audiences to something they’d never seen before, says Robert F. Chew, “then America’s really blind, because you have that in almost every city in the country.”
Like many cast members on HBO's The Wire, Robert F. Chew, who played the charismatic drug dealer "Proposition" Joe Stewart (uh, no relation) for all five seasons, is originally from Baltimore and therefore has firsthand experience with much of the urban decay the show depicts. But unlike other cast members, Chew was also holding a day job as an acting teacher working with inner-city youths while filming, a role he also performed on set with many of the young actors (like the four main boys of the fourth season) as well as nonprofessional Felicia "Snoop" Pearson. At the opening event of the Boston Book Festival this Friday, Chew will take part in a Wire panel with author and Wire writer/producer George Pelecanos, Jamie "Marlo Stanfield" Hector, and Donnie "the real-life Omar" Andrews, among others. I caught up with Chew over the phone from Baltimore, and we discussed the show and his teaching career. For those who haven't seen The Wire, be advised that there will be some spoilers. And hey, if you haven't seen The Wire: what are you waiting for?
SO I'VE HEARD YOU'RE STILL TEACHING. WERE YOU IN SCHOOL TODAY? Oh, no, I retired last year. After you have a certain generation of kids and the different transitions, I just thought of wanting to get my career back in perspective. I wanted a break also.
WAS THIS SOMETHING YOU HAD DONE BEFORETHE WIRE? Yeah, I had been doing this since 1992, and prior to that I was doing children's theater with a company called TheaterWorksUSA based out of New York, which got me into teaching performing arts and drama and music. I was doing it before The Wire, during The Wire, and after The Wire.
OH, DURINGTHE WIRE AS WELL? Yeah, 22 of my kids auditioned for The Wire and landed roles on the show.
DURING THE "SCHOOL SEASON" (SEASON FOUR)? During the school season. They would always film either after school hours or during the summer break.
DID YOU CONSULT DURING THAT SEASON? Yeah, I was the drama coach once they did the fourth season of the school system, and during the fifth season, some of my kids lingered over.
WHAT ABOUT WITH THE WRITING OF THAT SEASON, DID YOU ADD ANY OF YOUR EXPERIENCES TO IT? No, actually, (series co-creator) Ed Burns had more to do with the school season, and one of the actors, Troy Strickland, who played Fat-Face Rick, they both had worked in a school system where — I don't know what the term is — where the kids are somewhat behind or have problems, social problems. That's how they came up with that idea.
WHEN YOU WATCHED THE SEASON, DID YOU FEEL THEY GOT IT RIGHT? Oh, most definitely. Because even in a public school system, unfortunately, you find kids like that.
DO YOU FOLLOW THE CONVERSATION ABOUT EDUCATIONAL POLICY IN THIS COUNTRY? I've been disillusioned with politics in general with the state the country's in today, and they've been cutting the arts system year after year after year. It can drain you down. They've been cutting the arts even before the rest of the country was in the state it's in now. Whenever something needs to be cut, it's always the arts.