By Jake Donovan
Picture this; you’re 12 years old, and going over your list of things to do for the day.
Clean your room. Put away your clothes. Do your homework. Pretend to be a pre-teen drug dealer, and kill off one of the greatest characters in the history of television.
What was that last part again?
Such has become just another part of the day in the life of Thuliso Dingwall, better known to fans of The Wire as the foul-mouthed Kenard. Only those days are running short, with the critically acclaimed series coming to an end next months after five seasons on HBO.
Wire junkies around the globe are reluctantly embracing the inevitable (the 90-minute season finale airs Sunday, March 9, 8PM ET/PT), knowing that come March 10, the quality of televised program will instantly decrease. Surprisingly, there’s at least one brave soul who actual looks forward to life after the show.
“It’s been really nice doing The Wire ,” explains Thuliso Dingwall, a humble yet precocious 12-year old who couldn’t be further removed from his ruthless ‘Kenard’ character on the show. “The show has opened a lot of doors for me, but I’m ready to take on new roles.”
The role of Kenard was as challenging as it can get for any kid, never mind one as young as Thuliso. It was a daunting enough task to regularly participate in a show detailing the ongoing drug war in the streets of Baltimore, MD. It was another for a then 10-year old kid to take on a role where cursing and slinging were the chief descriptions of your character.
The profanity is what most concerned Thuliso and his parents, Vernon and Martha, to where they nearly rejected the role.
“We received a copy of the script and weren’t happy with the great deal of cussin’ involved,” explains Vernon. “We asked Thuliso if he knew any of the words, and what they meant. He told he knew them, but never dared to say them. We were hesitant at first; we almost turned it down, but then reconsidered.”
In an instant, Kenard was born, a far cry from Dingwall’s previous Wire experience.
“He had a bit part in Season 3 (third episode of season, “ Dead Soldiers ”), just one scene where he and three other kids are pretending to be Omar. This was a lot different, though. Not just a much bigger part, but talking like an adult, even worse than most people I know.”
Even in accepting the role, Thuliso remained uncomfortable. But a conversation with his grandmother helped him separate the artist from his work.
“She explained it to him,” informs Vernon, “that it’s no different from a carpenter. You use the tools of your trade to get your work done to the best of your ability, but once the cameras stop rolling, you resume being your normal self.”
For Thuliso, normalcy beyond the cameras is no different than any other kid. He presently attends Progressive Christian Academy in Camp Springs, MD, near his hometown of Clinton, both of which are approximately an hour from Baltimore. After school, it’s homework, chores, dinner and quality time in a stable, two-parent family environment.
Told ya it was nothing like Kenard. Nor was anything in his prior acting experience, most of which consisted of theatre work, including shows at the famed Hartford Stage.
The truth is, however, that he could’ve been acting straight out the crib yet would still gain instant recognition for his life-changing role on The Wire since joining the cast as a recurring character in 2004, though Dingwall has done his best to remind people that he and his character are two very different people.
“I don’t cuss, I don’t kill people, and I don’t sell drugs,” emphatically states Thuliso. “Everyone who knows me knows that it’s just acting, but when people meet me for the first time, all they see is Kenard and expect me to act like that.
“What most people don’t know is, I had a hard time adjusting to the role. Not just that I don’t cuss, but I don’t even like hearing it. But it was The Wire, a big opportunity to springboard my career, so I eventually got used to it.”
One thing he could never get used to was the violence. Again, it came with the uniform so he dealt with it. But some of it was a bit overwhelming – like his first on-screen killing. Just two episodes ago, it was his Kenard character who took it upon himself to rid the fictional (though all-too realistic) streets of Baltimore of its most infamous stick-up artist, the legendary Omar Little (masterfully portrayed by Michael K. Williams, long overdue of an Emmy nomination, if not an award altogether).
The scene called for Kenard to merely creep up on Omar while buying some “New-Poats” (Baltimore speak for Newports), and put one in his dome. If only it were that easy to pretend.
“I did the scene and got emotional,” admits Thuliso. “I never held a gun, and it was freaky. It looked so real.
“The first take shocked me; I started crying. I knew it was fake, but it looked and felt so real.”
The last part is what drew in the fans and critics who stayed with the show through its six-year/five season history. The ratings didn’t always match the hype, as the series was one of the best reviewed in televised history.
Dingwall is just grateful to be a part of it, even though the ride only lasts one more week.
“Being on The Wire was pretty fun,” he says, his innocence peering through. “It was nice meeting new people, especially the other kids on the set.”
The entire set remained supportive of each other’s careers, and was sensitive to the younger actors like Dingwall, when it became difficult to absorb the realism of the show. Not least of all, the aforementioned scene with Dingwall and Williams.
“Everyone was very supportive,” says Vernon of the scene. “They knew it frightened him, and could potentially affect him in negative fashion. But (Martha) and I used it to explain how life on the street works. In movies, you shoot someone, but at the end of the scene, they get up and move on with life. In real life, there’s no coming back.
“So everybody knew he would have to be comforted; it was nice to know they were concerned about his well-being and the potential aftermath.”
It also took for some on the set to remind papa Vernon at times that it was just acting.
“I grew up in the South Bronx, so I saw a great deal in my time. Well, there was one scene last season (Season 4, Episode 12 – “ That’s Got His Own ”) where Michael (played by Tristan Wilds) beat up Kenard. I was on set talking to Bill Zorzi (a real-life former reporter who plays a self-based news room character of the same name) when it happened, and almost ran across the street to stop them.
“Bill started laughing and told me it was just a scene in the episode. I didn’t realize they were shooting; it looked so real. All I see as a father is someone beating on my son.”
In his two-plus seasons on the show, Thuliso has seen a whole lot more.
“The show really opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he admits. “It makes me want to help these communities that experience this in real life, and encourage other kids my age, younger or even older, to stay away from drugs and guns. Don’t look at my character and think that’s me; instead learn from shows like this.”
He also has one more message for his peers.
“WORK… VERY… HARD. In school, in acting, in sports. Whatever you want to do, the only way to do things is to work very hard. Especially in school.”
Dingwall plans to keep working in front of the camera, though with his career role and the show that accompanies it coming to an end, he’s ready to move on.
“I don’t want to be typecast,” says Thuliso, who’s since shot scenes for two independent films, Expendable and Sympathetic Details. “I hope that other directors will look at Kenard as what I can do as an actor, not as what I will always be.”
He has one cure to help make a clean break from the role – and to remind everyone that he’s just a kid.
“It would be nice to do a show on the Disney Channel. Just to expand – and have some fun.”
Thuliso In The House?
“I’d love that. But I just want to be on a show. I don’t have to star in it. I just want to do other things after The Wire .”
Jake Donovan is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and the Tennessee Boxing Advisory Board. Comments/questions can be submitted to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .