Copyright concerns have stalled the staging of a theatrical spinoff to HBO’s “The Wire,” but the playwright expects to go forward with the show—by slightly adjusting the title and leaving the rest intact.
The play written by Norris Davis—who was a supporting character in the TV show—and Nadir Y. Abdullah was originally titled The Wire: A Stageplay. Now, Davis plans to retitle it Wire 2. He said he expects to put on the play, as planned, in Bethesda, with no other changes—despite calls from HBO, which owns the rights, to avoid using a story and characters protected by copyright.
“I’m not going to stage The Wire at the Bethesda Blues Supper Club,” Davis said. “What I intend to propose to [Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club owner Rick] Brown is that we stage a similar play called Wire 2.”
The play “begins where the critically acclaimed HBO series … left off,” according to a summary that was temporarily posted on the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club website.
Showrunner David Simon, who wrote and produced “The Wire,” called the club Dec. 12 to challenge a performance that, he suggested, was appropriating work that belonged to HBO. Club owner Rick Brown then removed the posting and canceled the January dates for the play, saying the show would need to be reworked.
But Davis said in an interview that he wants to forge ahead. He said he based the play on his own experiences in Baltimore, rather than sticking to the storyline created for TV.
Davis said the play “isn’t what you’d call an absolute spinoff,” but rather “extending a provocative story that we know a lot about.” He said it’s “based upon my own involvement” in the Lexington Terrace housing projects and other parts of Baltimore that Simon also chose to write about.
It’s not clear if Davis’ approach will satisfy HBO, which owns the rights to “The Wire.”
HBO representatives did not respond for requests for comment Friday and Monday, but Cecile Cross-Plummer, a spokeswoman for the company, sent a statement to Bethesda Beat on Dec. 13 after an earlier story ran.
“HBO has not seen the script so we cannot comment on this specific production, but regardless of what it is called, it would be an infringement of HBO’s rights for anyone to produce a sequel to “The Wire”, in any medium, without our consent,” she wrote in the statement.
A promotional poster for Davis’ play, under its original name, temporarily appeared on the Bethesda Blues & Jazz website.
Airing on HBO from 2002 to 2008, “The Wire” was a critically praised show that followed crime in Baltimore with characters like Det. Jimmy McNulty, Avon Barksdale, Omar Little and Chris Partlow. Davis played a small but recurring role as Vinson, a rim-shop owner.
Davis’ play, which was staged this summer at a Johns Hopkins Medicine auditorium in Baltimore, tells the story of Avon Barksdale, who finds himself involved in a turf war with Chris Partlow.
“Avon Barksdale has just been released from federal prison,” according to a plot summary posted by the production company. “He and his Lexington Terrace Boys want control of their empire again; but Chris Partlow, the head of the Black Guerilla Family is determined not to give anything to the Barksdale Crew. Even so, an imprisoned drug lord named Ghost has the final word for both men.”
Davis said his play will have the same names that were in “The Wire” only because the characters are real people whom Simon also chose to write about.
Simon doesn’t see it that way.
“There are no characters in the Wire that are based on any singular real person,” Simon wrote in an email. “Norris is simply not telling you the truth about this.”
Though there is a real-life drug dealer named Nathan Barksdale and other real people who inspired characters in the show, Simon has long maintained that The Wire characters were composites. HBO required the names to be cleared as not corresponding to any real person before broadcast, Simon wrote.
Davis, though, said there are “certain things you can’t copyright” and felt he shouldn’t be prevented from writing about characters based on people he knew. He said he had a problem with what he saw as Simon, who is white, and HBO profiting off the stories of a black community.
“My argument is was it alright for Simon and HBO to come into the black community, develop a story off of the social degradation that he found[?] [He] made millions without compensating Nathan (Bodie) Avon Barksdale, and the many real-life characters that they used on that series,” Davis wrote in an email.
Simon wrote that he and his writing partner Ed Burns spent years researching Baltimore and that anyone is “free to use the same history to tell fresh narratives.”
“They are not free to market that work under the name of the HBO production ‘The Wire’ or to employ the fictional characters that were created by others and appear in ‘The Wire,’” he wrote. “They are simply required to pick a new title, write new characters and narrative, and, in real effect, to create a new work.”
Noting that copyright holders must defend their work, Simon wrote that he felt he had a duty to contact Bethesda Blues & Jazz and inform HBO about the play. Now, he wrote, the matter is in the hands of HBO.
Last spring, a GoFundMe in Davis’ name asked for $10,000 for “The Wire: A Stage Play.” “I am the only one who can continue the spell binding drama,” the description read. There were no donations.
Before Davis appeared on “The Wire,” he was the subject of a 1998 Baltimore Sun article about how he lost his job as a counselor at a Baltimore high school after school officials fired him because of his criminal record of drug addiction and theft. The article describes Davis as well-spoken and well-dressed and details instances in which he impersonated a lawyer and stole money from a public television network. A judge called him a man who could “con the sweetness out of sugar.”
Davis, who still lives in Baltimore, remained hopeful on Monday that his play will be staged—both in Bethesda and elsewhere—and said he planned to hire a lawyer to fight for his rights.
“I have a great cast of actors, and we do intend to appear at the Bethesda Supper Club because we really like it there,” he said.
Brown, the owner of Bethesda Blues & Jazz, said last week that the play would be staged again under a new name and with different marketing in the spring. Then, on Monday—after Davis contacted Bethesda Beat with his vow to move ahead with the play—Brown said “nothing has been solidified yet.”
“There has been nothing firm,” Brown said, “but we would always be interested in talking with Norris after the script has been revised.”