By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007
The thing is, Felicia "Snoop" Pearson's life wasn't supposed to look like this. At all. Some folks think it shouldn't look like this. An eye for an eye, and all that that entails.
But on rare occasions, fate decides to indulge in a little rearranging of centrifugal forces, turning lives inside out and granting the object of its attention a massive, cosmic do-over. When this happens, it helps, of course, to have a face the camera craves, a compelling back story and a knack for making people want to help you.
Four years out of prison, age 24, Snoop wasn't living a life lined up along the straight and narrow. She was back in the game, peddling drugs, running with the rough boys, an undersize woman with an oversize swagger. Not much good was coming her way.
Until the night that Snoop spotted "Omar," the gay thug on the acclaimed HBO show "The Wire," at a club. Or maybe he spotted her. Accounts differ.
Omar, that is, Michael K. Williams, took in her baby butch vibe, the baggy basketball jersey, the jeans sliding south, and . . .
"I got intoxicated with her," Williams says. "I saw her strength and her vulnerability. You look in her eyes and you see things. . . . I said, 'This woman deserves a shot at something more than what the Baltimore streets have to offer.' I felt compelled to give her an option, just in case she wanted to try something else."
What he had in mind was a role on "The Wire," where she plays a coldblooded assassin with whom she just happens to share a name. Among other things.
"They saved my life," Snoop, now 26, says of "The Wire's" producers. "The route I was going was, I was going backwards again. God works in mysterious ways, that's all I can say. Thank God."
Adds her cast mate Andre Royo, who plays Bubbles on the show: "Thank God God watches HBO."
* * *
It's hard not to watch Snoop. In the very first scene of the first episode of the show's fourth season, she grabs the screen with a combination of comedy and understated malice, of thugged-out bravado and malignant affability. As horror writer Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly, the TV Snoop is "perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series."
The fictional Snoop is prowling the aisles of a Home Depot look-alike, on the hunt for a nail gun, a seemingly benign device that will take on great significance later. She listens intently as a white, middle-aged sales clerk explains the intricacies of nail-gunning. When he wraps up his little spiel, she lets it be known that she can't be bothered with the cash register. Stuffing a wad of hundreds into his hand, she tells him: "You earned that tip like a [expletive]" -- and walks off with "the Cadillac of nail guns."
Which she uses to entomb bodies. "You've got your parts on the show that are straight-up grimy," Snoop acknowledges with a laugh. "Mess around with someone and you'll get slumped."
And how accurate is that depiction?
"It's very accurate," Snoop says.
Authenticity is "The Wire's" calling card.
In the nearly five years that it's been on the air, Baltimore and "The Wire" have joined together, art and actuality intertwining in a complicated dance, with the city itself serving as the main character. It's a show that prides itself on the grittiness of its verite, plopping in public figures along with the fictional characters: like former drug kingpin Melvin Williams, whom co-producer and writer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop, once arrested in a big takedown.
So casting Snoop wasn't such a stretch. Michael K. Williams brought her to the set, introduced her around, arranged a meeting with the producers. Snoop was skeptical -- "People like to sell you dreams" -- and a little bemused by the proceedings: "Last time I saw that many white people, I was up in the courthouse."
Recalls Burns of their first meeting: "She has this smoky, husky voice, she's got a great demeanor. . . . She's quintessential street."
He also remembers this: "She said, 'I've been locked up before.'
"I said, 'I know that, I can see your jailhouse tats.'
"She said, 'I killed this person.' "The Wrong Crowd
Snoop's corner -- or what used to be her corner -- is in a tiny bracket of east Baltimore, at Oliver and Montford, a nasty little stretch of rickety rowhouses, boarded-up buildings and bulletproof liquor stores. By day, folks stroll the street, popping in and out of the takeout joint on the corner, casting a leery eye at a reporter's car that lingers too long, sizing up its driver: Narc? Police? A suburbanite stopping to cop?
By night, neon blue lights tacked high atop streetlamps flash on, off, on, to schizoid strobe effect, recording the good and the bad, the legal and the illegal, the malignant and the benign. Big Brother staking out his piece of the corner, just like everyone else here.
"If all the dead people [killed] on Oliver Street could stand up," Burns says, "there wouldn't be room for them."
Here, Snoop sold drugs, hustling out a living, a comfortable living, sure, but a living spent constantly watching her back. It was, she says, a life of "live or be killed." She prided herself on being a little roughneck, all bluster and long, thick braids, hanging with 'bangers, the only girl surfing a sea of testosterone.
She liked it like that. Never was one for the girlie things in life. And school? Forget about it.
Back then, says her godmother, Denise Robbins, 35, Snoop was "a big ol' agitator. She was rough, like rough. One of those little bad kids. But I always saw something different in her."
She had a lot to overcome, starting out as a three-pound preemie riddled with health problems, thanks to nine months of drugs served up in the womb. Both her parents were addicts. She never met her father; doesn't remember her mother. They're both dead.
When she was a baby, she became the foster child of an older couple, Levi and Cora Pearson, who later adopted her. Levi was an electrician; Cora, who worked in the city's foster care division, had a habit of bringing home leftovers from a broken system.
Snoop played sports with Levi, whom she called her granddad. Levi and Cora raised her old-school style, showering her with love, and relying on both the belt and the Bible.
But things changed the year Snoop turned 12. Levi died of cancer at 81. Snoop started running the streets, and she went from being a student who excelled in school to a student bringing home a steady parade of D's on her report card -- and one who was suspended twice for fighting.
In the 1993-94 school year, according to court records, Snoop missed 115 days. School officials reported that "Felicia could be pleasant and cooperative or belligerent and uncooperative." Cora told court officials after the killing that while Snoop was a well-mannered child who helped out around the house and always came home before her 10 p.m. curfew, her grandmother didn't have a clue who her friends were.
Robbins, the godmother, knew full well whom Snoop was running with. And she didn't like it. Some of east Baltimore's biggest drug runners, she says, had adopted Snoop as their mascot. For a young kid who'd never met her biological family, a girl who was struggling with her attraction to other girls, her crew provided a sense of home.
"They offered this thing to Snoop, like, 'We're your family. We got your back,' " Robbins says. "But I knew them 20-hundred years before she knew them. I knew what they were about."The Shooting
Snoop'll talk about anything and everything: growing up without her mama, selling drugs, smoking weed, being gay. But not that night.
Except to say this: "It's not true. I didn't do it. . . . I was babysitting." (And yet, she pleaded guilty.)
Mention it another time, and she'll shake her head.
"I'm saving that for my book," she says.
April 27, 1995.
It was a Thursday night, a school night, and Okia "Kia" Toomer had just run out to the store. She ended up in an alley around 9 p.m., not far from her house. There, Kia's grandmother, Sylvia Williams, says, and police records agree, "some girls got to fighting."
It's not clear what they were fighting about.
But one thing is clear, according to court records: Felicia Pearson pulled out a gun and fired it. Twice. The crowd scattered. Kia ran, too. But a bullet pierced her left buttock, tearing through nerves, veins and arteries before it exited the other side.
Kia fell down in the alley, calling out to a friend, who lay down with her, right there in the street, and waited for the ambulance, according to her grandmother. She died on the operating table at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"At 11:02 p.m.," her grandmother says.
Kia was 15.
Snoop was 14.
Until that night, their paths had never crossed.Reopened Wounds
By the window, Sylvia Williams sits, a sad-faced woman on an overstuffed sofa in an overstuffed rowhouse. Her son, Ronald, 57, rummages around in the kitchen, piping up from time to time.
It's been nearly 12 years since Kia was killed, but the wound is still fresh. Hearing about Snoop on "The Wire" ripped off the scab. One of Williams's daughters saw the show and called Williams, crying.
"She said, 'That girl that killed Kia is on "The Wire." She's still acting violent.' "
Williams can't bear to watch the show. How did this girl get to be on TV? Why are they letting her grandbaby's killer play a killer? As Williams sees it, Pearson didn't do enough time -- "she came out of prison, bragging" -- and now she's on TV?
" I could be on 'The Wire,' Mama!" her son tells her, shouting from the kitchen. "It's called acting!"
Not just anybody can be on the show, Ronald concedes. "Not everyone can act. She might be good at acting."
"A lot of people get breaks and it changes them," Ronald says. "But I don't know if [playing an assassin] just makes her worse. She's still living the hell that she was back in the day when she killed Kia."A Healing Experience
After Snoop was identified out of a lineup, a grand jury indicted her as an adult for first-degree murder and a handgun violation. Snoop pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to two eight-year terms, to be served consecutively at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. (She was released after five years, according to prison officials, because of "good time" and "work time" accumulated.)
Prison changed her life, she says. That, and her worries about the pain that her incarceration caused her grandmother. Snoop can't stand disappointing her.
"Before I went to prison," she says in her gravelly voice, pacing around her godmother's kitchen, "I didn't give a [expletive]. Mother, father didn't care about me, where the [expletive] are they? So I didn't care.
"Back then, I didn't have a conscience. Now I do. Prison was a whole different ballgame. Prison will make you smart."
If, she says, you let it.
As she sees it, some people chafe at the prison's restrictions, of being told when to shower, when to eat, when to sleep, when to turn off the TV. Snoop decided that she was going to like it. All of her old running buddies were in prison, like her. Or dead.
So she kept to herself -- save for a fight or three -- knuckled down and got her GED.
"I'm not glad that she was there," says Robbins. "But it was kind of a blessing. . . . She actually calmed down a lot in prison."
Robbins says she saw this firsthand. As a corrections officer, she got to see her goddaughter every day.
Snoop was 16 when she went in.
There, in a weird bit of serendipity, was Carlene Smith, Kia's mother, serving 90 days on a parole violation. Corrections officials quickly herded Snoop into protective custody to keep them apart, Smith says.
"They thought I was homicidal," Smith says, starting to cry as she recounts that time. "They thought I was a threat to her."
And was she?
"I know I was a threat to her."
But Smith, who struggles with drug addiction and bipolar disorder, says that Snoop approached her one day during a church service at the prison, softly touching her on the hand as she said, "I'm sorry."
Don't be sorry, Smith told her, be careful. Live by the sword . . .
In that moment, Smith says, she felt some peace. Like God was trying to tell her, "This isn't your battle." Telling her it was time to forgive.
It proved to be a temporary peace. Now Snoop's television role is bringing the memories back. Here she is, recently married, wrestling with sobriety, trying to make a go of life, but she feels like she's been catapulted back to 1995.
"I was devastated," Smith says. "It's like they're glorifying it."
Would she feel differently if Snoop weren't playing an assassin?
"If she were playing a different role," Smith says, "I know I'd feel differently."The Next Step
Yesterday, "The Wire" began filming its fifth and final season, a coda to a series that critics have deemed the best that television has to offer. So Snoop, who now enjoys a luxury few actors do -- a steady gig -- will be cut loose into a world of auditions and casting calls. In due time, she will find out if there is a place for her beyond "The Wire" and a role tailor-made for her.
"I can play other characters," Snoop says. "That's why I'm going to school. It ain't like I've been studying this all my life. People just got to give me a chance."
Her biggest obstacle: Overcoming typecasting. She's only 5-2 but she projects thug. Boy thug. At a restaurant, she heads for the women's room, only to be told by a panicked waiter, "The men's room is over there!" She just laughs. She's been getting that almost all her life. Last time she dressed like a girl?
But underneath the baseball cap and the gangsta demeanor is a woman with the face of a silent screen star, all sleepy eyes, delicate features and cupid's-bow lips. She can do girlie-girl, she insists. Last fall she auditioned for the part of a 16-year-old in a movie, and spent hours walking in high heels. She'll do whatever it takes.
She knows that she's been given a one-in-a-million chance. It's not a chance that she plans to blow. She tried to go straight after she got out of prison. But, she says, once employers learned of her criminal past, she was always shown the door.
Since that night she met "Omar" in the club, she's reordered her life. Moved out of her old block and into a nice apartment in a nice side of town, playing house with her girlfriend. She's got a real estate agent, and big plans to buy a house and move her grandmother out of the 'hood.
With her new career comes a whole lot of attention, attention that she clearly enjoys. She pops into Mo's, a local seafood spot, and there, everybody seems to know her name. The bartender, a middle-aged Italian American woman with a weathered face, beams at the sight of Snoop, and without being asked, whips up her favorite non-alcoholic drink. The restaurant owner pops out to tease her about putting her picture on the wall, next to the other autographed pictures of stars. Diners slap her on the back, give her a pound -- and then ask her for her autograph.
Not so long ago, the producers of the show helped her find what was left of her biological family. She knocked on the door, she says, heart pounding. Her mother's mother opened the door and demanded to know "Who you?" It didn't end up being a happily-ever-after. They haven't been in touch since.
"I'm not angry," she says. "I'm just glad I got to see what my [biological] grandmother looks like."
So for now, she's focusing on the things that she can change. Like herself. She listens daily to speech tapes, practicing vowels and consonants in an effort to eradicate that distinctive B-more drawl from her speech, to say "everybody" instead of "urrrrybuhhy." There are acting classes at the Baltimore School of the Arts, and one-on-one sessions with an acting coach.
"She knows the odds," "The Wire" producer Burns says. "I just wish there was a fallback position for her. . . . She's doing everything possible you can do; the hope is that someone can see it. She's got great presence and she's extremely easy to work with.
"But how many roles are out there for a young black woman?"
"I never thought she'd be an actor," says Robbins, her godmother. "But I am sooooo glad. Even when she had the smallest roles [on 'The Wire'], I was like, 'Keep going back. Keep going back.' Anything to keep her off the streets."
Will it stick?
"I hope so.
"Without this, where do we go? . . . I need her to do as much as she can do while the lights are still bright around her."