Interview with ‘The Wire’s’ Sonja Sohn: Not ‘Your Typical Black Girl’

by guest contributor Wah-Ming Chang, originally published at Tripmaster Monkey

Like all the characters on the acclaimed HBO drama The Wire, Lieutenant Kima Greggs is a fascinating mix: an ass-kicking black lesbian cop in a department dominated by men. And as it turns out, the actress who plays her—Sonja Sohn—is just as complicated. A husky-voiced woman of African American and Korean parentage, Sohn (who’s straight, in case you’re wondering) got her start in the New York slam-poetry circuit (including the Def Poetry Jam) before moving on to the TV and movie game (check her out in Shaft). TMM’s Wah-Ming Chang recently caught up with Sohn to pick her brain about poetry, gay cops and why she’s not “your typical quote-unquote black girl.”

TMM: One of the things that really distinguishes you is your voice. It’s so sexy and husky. Most of us can sound that way only when we have colds, but your voice is just so sexy. Does it help you get roles?

SS: I think that everyone has a certain kind of energy that places them, and I think that my voice helps me in how people perceive me in the business. So, I guess you can say that it does.

How do you use it for effect in slam poetry? Does it help you in your acting and your performance in having that background?

I think every poet, no matter what type of voice they have, has to use their voice for different kinds of emphasis. I just think that’s a part of performance they should own. When it comes to acting, though, I don’t think it can be a conscious kind of thing, unless you’re just having a problem with projection, unless it’s a technical issue, like working with mikes and in theater. Other than that, it can’t be something that you’re conscious of, otherwise you’re just taken out of the character and out of the moment. Depending on the kind of poet that you are and your material, you use your voice as an instrument, whereas in acting, you use your whole body. But you definitely use your voice as a tool.

You work with the mike when you’re doing poetry, you do have to know your voice, and you have to know how it carries over the mike and how close you should be to it, and how to work with the mike. Because all you have at the end of the day onstage is your voice. If you are someone who uses your body, uses a lot of body language, you have that, too, but I was pretty much just a vocal person. I was very dramatic, which is pretty much how I think I segued into acting. My type of performance lends itself to the craft of acting.

A lot of people have to learn how to get up in front of an audience and just let go. Poetry, and performing poetry, certainly is probably one of the best ways to do that.

Yeah. Again, it just depends on the kind of poet you are. I’m not really as plugged in as I used to be, but a lot of people seem to be very… rap/acting, their poetry seemed to be a kid or cousin to that genre, you know, very theatrical and very rapping, as poets. When I was out there performing, there were a lot of different types of poets that I loved. Our shows were varied, extremely varied. There was this poet, Edwin Suarez, an amazing guy from the Lower East Side, who did a lot of things with sound, where they were words and sound, and together they made a lot of sense. Through it you would get a message and a song, and a theatrical performance as well. See, that’s brilliant to me.

And this is something that I don’t see a lot of right now, when I look at Def Poetry Jam, for instance—but I gotta say that I haven’t looked at Def Poetry Jam much in the last couple years. I mean, there used to be people doing voices and theater pieces that were poems—oh God, there was just so much—songs and monologues. They have people doing that now, but… Well, I can’t put down what’s out there now; I won’t put down anybody’s creative flow, cuz we all gotta get out there and do what we have to do. And at the end of the day, if this is where it’s all headed and where it’s all going, it’s gotta be all good. But I’m just talking about what fascinated me, what I couldn’t do, which I thought was genius, what I admire, what I don’t see a lot of. I like innovation like that.

You come from an African American father and a Korean mother. Do you have a Korean name or an African name?

I took my mother’s last name some years ago just before I started doing poetry, as I never really felt that attached to the name that I walked around with most of my life. I always loved my mother’s name, so I took her last name—Sohn. My father wanted to name me Sonja. My mother wanted to name me Soon-Ja, it’s a Korean name, and so because it was sort of like Sonja, my father sort of won out, but my mother’s intention was Soon-Ja, so we ended up with Sonja, so I figured let me give her Sohn. [Laughs] It’s all sort of in there, there’s a spirit and an energy that’s in there, so I just figured it’s all Korean and black. Sonja’s certainly not an African name, it’s really a Swedish name, all that good stuff.

That’s a great compromise.

[Laughs] I feel my name embodies my parents.

How did you get the role on The Wire?

I can’t believe everybody asks me that! You’re the second person, and I’ve had a couple of interviews. I got it the way most actors get it—I auditioned for it. [Laughs] My agent called me and said, “Hey, you have an audition, three o’clock, on Thirteenth Street, at So-and-so’s office. Just show up there at three, you’re gonna go on tape.” Bang, that’s what I did, the director and the producer called me to come back, I came back a week later, I did it, and then six weeks later they said, “You got the role.”

Have you been offered any other roles of either African American or Asian American characters? What do you think about stereotypes of African American or Asian American characters these days?

Well, I’ve never been offered anything Asian American, I’ll tell you that. The day that happens, I’ll fall out. [Laughs] That would be nice. Something mixed, at least. But stereotypes—I think that I have problems getting seen and getting accepted for all African American roles. I’m not your typical African American woman when you see me. I have got to be seen several times for roles for African American women. What I’ve done sometimes, funnily enough, when I know I’m going in for some roles that are really African American and maybe films where the cast is predominantly African American, I’ll get my hair blown out, with the curls. I’ll get it done in the way they do it, you know what I mean? So I get more of that look. It’s weird, cuz my hair is more wavy and kinky, and it looks more like, quote-unquote, mixed hair. Whereas all the girls get their hair flat-ironed. So if I do my hair that way, it’s easy for me to just blow it out and get it done, it just looks like it’s been done really well. [Laughs] So sometimes I actually appear more African American when I do my hair that way. But it’s been really interesting. That’s where I’ve probably experienced more of the quote-unquote stereotypes. You know, I’m not full African American, so I guess in a way I gotta see this side of it. I’m not your typical quote-unquote black girl, cuz both of my parents aren’t black.

None of the characters you play is typical. Kima especially, with her sexuality. I just love how she’s so up front with her sexuality to the other detectives. She explained to McNulty that she has to be up front because she’s a woman. What’s your take on gay policemen, gay men who are police, on how they handle their sexuality? For example, we had that one great scene where Deputy Commissioner Rawls in Season 3 was seen in a gay bar.

That was wild. We all saw that—that was trippy! [Executive producer] David [Simon] just went there. David just said, “I’m having fun.” We were like, “David, where are you going with that?” I don’t even know if that’s ever going to come back out, I have no idea what he’s going to do with that. That shit was funny like a motherfucker, I gotta tell you, we all fell out.

But I don’t have an opinion about gay cops, really. [Laughs]

How much cooperation or resistance do you get from the Baltimore system—politics-, education-, police-wise?

I think that some Baltimoreans don’t take too kindly to us. But there are a lotta lotta lotta people in Baltimore who actually love the show. We have a lot of supporters in Baltimore, but we also have our detractors, and I think they are the folks who are in government.

What spinoff would you like to see: Kima and Jimmy, Kima and Bunk, or Kima and Lester?

A spinoff? [Laughs]

Because you guys just have one more season left, dammit.

If there was a spinoff… You’ve only mentioned cops. If there was a spinoff on the cops side, I’d like to see probably Jimmy and Bunk, or Kima and Lester.

Yes! And on the street side? I mean, Omar has to have his own show.

You think? You know, the thing about the street: there needs to be some kind of diversity for those things to work. You kind of think: How do you make it happen? It’s not one-sided. So: certainly Omar. But you know what I’d like? I would like Proposition Joe—you know his whole drug cartel, that whole conglomerate, you know all those guys who sit around the table? I’d like to see them develop that storyline and really do that whole thing.

That would be fascinating.

So it’s almost like a ghetto Godfather type thing. [Laughs] I think that would be interesting.

And lastly: How do you feel about monkeys?

[Pause] Monkeys? [Laughs in surprise]

Do you have any feelings about monkeys?

Hmm… How do I feel about monkeys? That’s a good question. [Laughs] Let me think about it, just give me a minute. Don’t go nowhere. Well—[Sighs]—I don’t feel badly about them. [Laughs] There are so many different kinds of monkeys, you know? They’re cute. Chimps are really cute. Baboons, though, are really weird. When my kids were little, I went to the Brooklyn Zoo with my daughter, and this baboon had his butt up against the window, and it was the grossest thing! The baboons have no shame. It was just so gross, and it was just something the kids should not have been looking at; the zookeepers really shouldn’t put the baboons in the plate-glass windows for the little kids. But I thought it was hilarious.

And I bet the baboons were laughing also.

They probably were.

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  • Haafu

    Hyacine has a point. She is both cultures. I think she said she is writing something about her mother’s life? (book, screenplay?).