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The Wire (HBO).

On HBO's hot new series The Wire, police detectives on the bartered, crime-riddled streets of Baltimore fight a never-ending drug war. At the core are two cops--an unconventional white guy named James McNulty and the less traditional but equally devoted black lesbian Shakima Greggs. Shakima--nick-named Kima by her colleagues--is one of the few detectives who can go undercover in the drug-ridden projects like an insider and still navigate the political morass of police bureaucracy. Her life at home--with her long-term partner--is so convincing most fans expect that the actress who portrays Kima, Sonja Sohn, is herself a lesbian. Not that she's fighting her newfound role as lesbian sex symbol: "I'm really open, and I don't like to claim title to anything in my life, you know, racially, culturally, sexually." Of course, this isn't Sohn's first dyke role, either. Her provocative screen debut was in the critically acclaimed lesbian film Work.

Sohn, a former slam poet, starred in and helped co-write Slam. After that came smooches with Samuel Jackson in Shaft and a turn in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead. Last month she appeared in HBO's third annual Def Poetry Jam and this summer she stars in the gritty, festival-bound The Killing Zone. But make no mistake: The Wire is Sohn's crowning achievement thus far. The second season of The Wire--debuting June 1--moves away from the urban drug war and instead chronicles the steady decline of the working class in Baltimore. During a break on the set of the series, Sohn--in her trailer cooking string beans and struggling with her cell phone--told us why she's thrilled to play television's only black lesbian.

CURVE: Shakima's home life--her relationship with her girlfriend--seems so real and so natural. How did you develop that?

Sohn: Honestly, I have to give a lot of credit to [show creator] David Simon. He just does such a great job with the writing and he knows the characters very well--I show up and I do the best job that I can.

I heard that you were disappointed with your initial sex scenes.

[Laughs.] Oh, absolutely!

Why is that?

It's because when I first saw it, it looked like two straight girls fumbling around trying to look like sexy lesbians. It was a very awkward situation.

But this isn't the first time you've done a lesbian love scene. In Work, you have some really sexy scenes.

How did you know about that? [Laughs.]

I thought that movie was amazingly sexy.

Really? I liked that film too, and I thought it was sexy. That's probably because [director] Rachel [Reichman] is really familiar with the world of lesbianism, you know, and is able to write those characters and direct those characters in that way.

How does it feel to suddenly be a lesbian sex symbol?

[Chuckles.] You know, some things you just don't have control over. And it's not that I mind. I was kissing Sam Jackson in Shaft, and all of a sudden, I became like a serious hottie, you know, among straight black men. It's my job as an actress to inhabit many worlds and to do it convincingly.

Is it fun to play a bad ass?

She's a bad ass at work but when she comes home she's like Miss Kitten--she gets put in her place. And that's really a lot of fun. I like that, because people have many layers.

Is this character a stretch for you? What are your limitations in playing Kima?

It was a stretch trying to play a copl Initially that was pretty tough. ... Where I come from, cops, nah, we don't like cops. So when I first went into this project--which reminded me of where I grew up, I mean the buildings almost looked identical--and I saw the people and I had to play a cop, it just, those worlds were clashing inside me all over the place.... Eventually I had to recognize that I am an actor and this is my job, and otherwise I am going to get really caught up and my work is going to be no good.

Do you think African Americans are still ghettoized on TV?

Of course. Just look at UPN--basically, middle-class characters, you know, they're still doing their thing, you know, the whole spiel. And not to put anybody down. Sometimes you want a paycheck and pay your bills, and when you're an actor, you might have to take what is being offered you. Some people have the luxury of turning down parts because they are degrading. I've been very fortunate, because I've just had one role, the one I played in Shaft, where I wasn't jumping up for joy to play it, but I knew it would be good tape for me, and good exposure. So I did it.

Do you worry about being typecast?

Not really. I have a deep faith and belief that nothing is really orchestrated or controlled by anybody else except God, so if I am typecast, maybe it will lead somewhere. Honestly, I just don't know how much of this I want to do. My whole life isn't invested in acting.

Yeah, you were a spoken-word poet and you co-wrote Slam. How did you move from poetry to acting?

The kind of poetry I was doing at the time was very dramatic. Now, I hadn't planned it that way; I was just doing what moved me. Once a director came up to me and she said, "You know what, do you act?" I said, "No." And she said, "You know what, you might want to think about it because I think you'd be good at it." I went, "Um hmm, whatever." Because it's a profession I've always run away from. I always thought actors were so vain; actors and models were self absorbed, blah, blah, blah. So, a friend of mine who's a film critic for the Village Voice one day came up to me and said, "You know what? You look like the physical type that a friend of mine is looking for for a film that she's doing. She's looking for a young, black athletic type, because the girl plays basketball or whatever. You ought to give her a call or go by there." I said All right." This is somebody I respect a lot. So I made the call-- and I ended up getting the role. That was the role in Work...

At that time I just thought it was a one-off deal; I did it, it was fun, but I wasn't going to do it again. ... Right after that, I went to a play a friend of mine was in. ... They were auditioning for another play in the same building and the producer was there and said, "You look like an actress. Why don't you come audition for my play?" I said, Listen, I don't have anything. I have a poem!' He's like, "Do the poem!' So I that's how I got in the play. I thought, "Wait a second, this thing is chasing me down!'...

I left (poetry] to study acting. At the end of that period my acting coach told me, "You know you re ready, which means you have to get on the stage any way you can!' She was basically saying, 'You have to go back to poetry to get on stage!' I didn't want to, but I respected her opinion so much that I decided to go back. And one day I was doing a poem and the people from Slam were in the audience and the poem I did really resonated with the theme of their film and the rest is history.

I love the part in Slam where you say that you can give birth to an excuse so easily that you'll believe it has been there all along. What excuses do you make?

That was the poem they heard. It really is about how powerful I believe the mind is and how much trickery it can play upon a person. Surely in your life there must have been a time where you believed, "Yeah, I'm on the right road. I'm supposed to be doing this," and--years later, months later, days later you wake up and go, "Oh shit, that was completely wrong."

Your roles in both Work and The Wire are not what you'd consider traditionally feminine. Does that come easily to you, or do you have to work at it?

That comes easily to me, I suppose. I just don't identify myself--I mean, I have to be female. That's what they call me. But I feel that there's a duality in everybody in every way and shape possible. I've never really felt completely one way or the other.

It seems like Hollywood rarely portrays black women without it being stereotypical. Do you think that's changing?

Is that changing? Can you think of a film where that stereotype has been changed? What I really think, right now, is there is a need in general in film, and television I suppose, for a project that gives depth to black people--male and female. But, yeah, let's talk about the female--what you see are mothers, the good, solid, nurturing mom, or you see the mother that's, like, strung out on drugs and trying to make her way back. Or you have the big, hot sexy symbol and she's either the wife or the girlfriend of somebody else. ... That's what makes playing this role very exciting because I think it's cutting new ground.

It's definitely something we haven't seen. You're the only black lesbian on TV right now.

Yeah, probably the only degenerate on TV. [Laughs.]

Let me just ask you one more question. Is there a role that you really wanted that you didn't get?

There have been roles that I wanted because I needed the paycheck, but not roles that I've really wanted to play. It's really important not to get attached. You audition, you need to feel good about your audition, get better at what you do and keep moving. ... Getting attached to a role can be very dangerous.

That's a better way to look at it. A lot of times I talk with actresses who say, "Oh, Halle Berry gets all the roles I wanted."

Well, shit. I mean, I like Halle Berry. I thought she did a great job in Monster's Ball, but, I mean, who the fuck wants to be a Bond girl? I mean it's cute being a Bond girl--see, Halle can do that, she's at a certain place. And it's fun being a Bond girl, you know, the first black Bond girl. But you know, I wouldn't want to continue doing all that. I don't want to take anything away from Halle, but they're actually gonna write the roles I want. You know, you might get something like The Wire. God, you know how many actresses want this role? Like I said, it's a blessing.

RELATED ARTICLE: CSI & CSI: Miami:(CBS)

If television crime shows on television are the mirror in which Americans inspect their variegated complexion, then CS! is the tops at shaping public consciousness. It's consistently No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings (that means almost 30 million people tune in) and it features two of the strongest female characters on television.

"Catherine Willows [Marg Helgenberger] and Sara Sidle [Joria Fox] are so much stronger than the guys at the end of the day," argues Carol Mendelsohn, the lawyer-turned-executive producer of CSI.

In fact, in last year's season finale, Catherine saves her male supervisor. 'We said in the room, 'One of our CSls is going to have to shoot and kill a suspect. Which of our CSls actually has the ability, the mental capability, of doing that and going on with their lives?' The only one we said could do it was Catherine Willows.... We really talked about it, and we settled on Catherine."

So what if the characters aren't openly gay? Executive producer Ann Donahue is -- and it shows. CS! is one of the few crime shows on the air with more female than male viewers. It's credited with the recent surge of applications to college forensic-science programs (again, a higher number from women). And it's the only crossover hit to make it to the top 10 for both black and white households.

Donohue (who won an Emmy for her work on Picket Fences) and Mendelsohn can't take all the credit. They owe part to executive story editor Elizabeth Devine (a criminalist with the LAPD) and to two nonconventional screen queens. Helgenberger, who played a hooker on China Beach, is a middle-aged single mom and a former-stripper-turned-crime scene investigator. She's got the cojones on the show, but the real ball-breaker is junior investigator Jorja Fox, who portrayed a lesbian on ER and Ellen, plays drums in the all-girl band Honey Pot, and owns a production company that specializes in lesbian plays. Hmmm.

Donahue took her knocks for an episode with an FTM villain earlier this year, but she's got a knack for facing the intimacy of murder and crafting really smart, strong female roles. The show pushes boundaries, too, in other realms, with differently abled regulars and story lines that delve into topics like BDSM without sensationalizing them. No wonder CSI's minutia of murder has spawned so many imitators. Most noteworthy among them is the spin off CSI: Miami, which hasn't developed its female characters well enough, but does get kudos for featuring Khandi Alexander (the girl who liplocked Peta Wilson in La Femme Nikita) as an African-American medical examiner.

Crossing Jordan (NBC)

On NBC's Crossing Jordan, Jill Hennessy--who played the lesbian lover in Chutney Popcorn - makes sure viewers keep guessing about her character's sexuality and lack of, um, femininity. In Crossing, Hennessy plays Jordan Cavanaugh, an intrepid Boston medical examiner with rage issues. A modern fairy-tale princess, Jordan was raised without a mother (like the crime-fighting girls on Alias and Dark Angel) whose death is a large preoccupation in her life. She's surrounded by a bevy of odd co-workers, like Ravi Kapoor as Bug, and the ex-good-cop-gone-bad father who helps her solve cases.

A recent episode, written by gay exec story editor Elizabeth Sarnoff, finds Hennessy growing a little too close to a suspect, the Dr. Lauraish character played by lesbian icon Mariel Hemingway. Hemingway previously played gay in Personal Best and The Sex Monster, and had one of the earliest lesbian kisses on television (when she smooched Roseanne in 1994). Although Jordan and the doc sizzle with sexual tension, Hemingway's character is too distraught over her deceased partner for the spark to ignite.

This kind of sexual ambiguity is what feminist cinema critic Teresa de Lauretis, author of Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, calls a safe move. "[They] offer their heterosexual female audience with a 'safe' means of engaging with a lesbian fantasy scenario by offering them at the same time the possibility of denying this fantasy."

Fastlane (Fox)

In the history of TV's lesbian kisses--from LA Law to Relativity--none was as hot as those in a recent episode of the testosterone-laden Fastlane. In previous episodes, Fastlane has brought us gratuitous shots of Peter Facinelli's naked ass, but all the action these days belongs to Tiffani Thiessen's character, Lt. Wilhelmina "Billie" Chambers.

In an episode with a motorcycle-straddling jewel thief (Tatyana Ali), the guys ponder whether Billie plays on the "all-girl's team." In the episode "Strap On" (Fox execs say the double entendre means, "Take your gun"), Billie infiltrates a lesbian crime ring. The episode--which was preceded by warnings about "adult sexuality" but still aired in the family-friendly 8 p.m. slot--was written by out lesbian Kim Newton. In it, Billie meets Sara (played by lesbo-friendly Jaime Pressly) in a real lesbian bar (L.A.'s Girl Bar), where Billie seems completely comfortable. Sara kisses Billie at the bar to save her from an unwanted suitor. At one point, Sara even asks Billie if she's gay or just "bi-curious"--another first on network TV. The two women start dating and cozy up in a hot tub. Naked! Making out! Seriously. Sara invites Billie to spend the night, and we don't hear a rejection.

Despite the obvious duplicity of this undercover operation, Billie seems to authentically fall for Sara. During the concluding bust, Sara is shot but doesn't die, and Billie promises to help keep her out of jail. The Fastlane guys try to muster the courage to ask Billie if she's a lesbian, but wimp out by asking if she misses being "undercover." We flash back on a scene of Billie dancing with Sara at Girl Bar before she answers, "Yes." Another double entendre?

"We want to hint at something in Billie's character--is she bisexual because she's doing her job or is she a lesbian?" says exec producer John McNamara

"It does feel a little bit like the writers are trying to have it both ways by attracting the lesbian and straight-male audience with images of lesbian sexuality' adds AftrEllen.com's Warn, who asks if Fastlane is "avoiding the potential controversy.., by not actually defining Billie's sexual orientation as lesbian or bisexual." Warn thinks the show is ground-breaking simply because Billie displayed familiarity with lesbian sexuality, wasn't uncomfortable kissing another woman and made no effort to identify herself as heterosexual--which makes it clear that she doesn't care if anyone thinks she's gay.

"I didn't see what the big deal was about in this episode," Theissen told reporters. She's ready to go either way for the show. Apparently viewers are too: Ratings jumped by a third among 18- to 49-year-old men and women.

"I think that if the writers continue to develop Billie's character as a queer woman it will be pioneering on TV, for a few reasons' says Warn. "Because Billie is the boss in the series and clearly comfortable being in charge.

Billie seems very comfortable with her sexuality, and not at all ashamed of it; she comes off more like a person who likes to keep her personal life private, rather than someone who is hiding' a 'secret'. Third, unlike other ensemble series which have so many characters that you may not see a particular character for several episodes, Billie is central to Fastfane's story line every week, and is featured in every episode--which would probably make her the lesbian character with the most screen time on network television if she were to come out."

Without a Trace (CBS)

In a television landscape filled with bloodsoaked series, this smarty-pants police procedural stands out. While most eyes are on perky (and blonde) Poppy Montgomery, I can't stop being transfixed by Marianne Jean-Baptiste's FBI agent Vivian Johnson. Her stellar moment came this season when she infiltrated an underground railroad of domestic-violence victims and was "made" by the lesbian cop who ran a safe house.

Jean-Baptiste is tough and sophisticated, somber but empathetic. It's an odd combination, but Jean-Baptiste--the first black Brit actress to get nominated for an Oscar for Secrets and Lies--pulls it off easily. Though she's straight in real life (well, she's married to a ballet dancer) and may be on-screen, she's genuinely dykey, which might be why this top-10 show is giving ER a run for its money.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (UPN)

There's always been a lesbian subtext to Buffy. Back when Faith and Buffy battled--vampires and each other--many fans imagined they were shagging, too. (Actress Eliza Dushku admitted to encouraging the lesboeroticism.) Then came Willow's magical awakening--sexual and talent-wise--and her relationship with Tara.

Now Willow has a new girlfriend, and she's an ass-kicking sort. No more of this sensitive Sapphic witchery. Kennedy (lyari Limon) is a take-charge slayer-in-training, which means she's tough and wisecracking and as good in battle as she is in bed. Limon is only the second Latina actress ever to portray a lesbian on the small screen (Lisa Vidal has had a small role on ER). She's another rarity, too: She's not what Warn calls the tentative, struggling-with-my-sexuality lesbian character" we usually see on TV.

"It's especially rare to see a teenage lesbian character on television whose story line doesn't revolve around coming out:' Warn says. "Kennedy challenges conventional notions of femininity because she is aggressive, courageous, and direct, all without crossing over into the 'bitch' category where television so often puts assertive women.

Another perk? The gang likes her, just the way she is. Willow kissed her and Buffy promoted her. Now, just as producers announced that the series will live on in Sarah Michelle Gellar's absence, it looks like Kennedy (and the returning Dushku) could have their own lesboerotic encounters.

Birds of Prey:(WB)

Rumor has it the leather-clad Bat femmes were killed off not so much by dwindling ratings but by a creative scuffle behind the scenes. Still, the show did attempt some dykeish terrain. First, Batgirl sported a wheelchair. Later, Dinah (the daughter of Black Canary, a Batman protege) had a sleepover with her friend Gabby, who she discovered was a lesbian. In the next episode, Dinah has her first major fight scene. Coincidence? I think not.

She Spies(Syndicated by MGM)

Natasha Henstridge has played gay before--as Miss Ellen, the lesbian substitute teacher on South Park, and amidst a gaggle of dykes in some movie about Mars. She's a tomboy who clips pronouns from her interviews and wears flannel (often). So why the heck is it taking so long for her character (one of a trio of Charlie's Angels wannabes) to at least go incognito as a lesbian?

Alias (ABC)

Anyone who thinks CIA agent Sydney Bristow can't be gay has never been to ImJustSayin.net - Jennifer Oksana's Web site dedicated to the homoerotics of Alias. Oksana and other women have imagined worlds where Jennifer Garners Sydney is in love with her roommate Francie; now that Francie (Merrin Dungey) has been replaced by an evil doppelganger, anything's possible.

Even if she's not a lesbian, Sydney's no shrinking violet. In the heavily promoted post-Superbowl episode, Garner dons two different sets of fancy lingerie while AC/DC wails "Back in Black:' In a delightfully self-mocking, pop-reflective moment, she gets to kick the ass of the man who got her the getup while yelling something to the effect of, "Do you think we like wearing this shit?"

Garner's femme and foxy girl-next-door Sydney isn't the object of the de facto male gaze. In fact, Sydney is actively fighting it, proving that she can subvert, co-opt and destroy men at will. She's not thinking about making babies - or probably even making love - because she's too busy getting her teeth pulled out with pliers ("Start with the teeth in the back' she tells one torturer). But she does put on and discard an array of personalities (is it work or is she finding herself?) and she's frequently donned drag that certainly looks dykey to us. Even with the adrenaline rush and the sexy outfits, the boys still don't get it: The show - No. 65 in the ratings - attracted the lowest postSuperbowl audience since 1988, probably because it's too feminist for the fellows.
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Publication:Curve
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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