Life is full of trade-offs: In the Heights sacrificed some of its realism for the sake of light hip-hop entertainment; Def Poet Lemon's County of Kings: the beautiful struggle has sacrificed some entertainment for the sake of heavy doses of reality. Lemon Anderson, the solo spoken-word performer, has a story to tell, but developer and director Elise Thoron hasn't helped him cut it down; this is a problem for an artist who is primarily known for his short, targeted poems. Over the course of two hours, he's bled a little dry: he's like a cross between Junot Diaz and John Leguizamo, except that he ends up with Diaz's energy and Leguizamo's language.
Luckily, the underlying story is pretty good, and so what if it treads the familiar plot of a troubled youth trying to make good for his mother: Lemon puts a spring in that step. What drags the show down is a soft and casual movement that belies the hard moments and specificity of details. Lemon never pops--he sticks with a lyrical swagger that prevents him from building and keeps him slightly hunched, as if he's trying to hold something back. Fair enough: it's a personal story, and when he imitates his Brooklyn neighbors and relatives, he shows that he can come out of that shell. Still, for audiences trying to jam to his beat, there's a wall that keeps his mother's AIDS at bay long after she's succumbed to the disease.
The subtitle of Lemon's show is worth noting: "the beautiful struggle." The show itself is still uneven--the first act, dealing with Lemon's childhood, is far more detailed than his vague drug dealing in the second--but the struggle, especially given Lemon's talent for "carjacking sonnets," is beautiful.