Performing on-stage is how celebrated actor, director and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith answers those burning questions he has about the past. His inquisitive one-man play, Rodney King, is a minimalist but dynamic production that journeys into the life of the black man notoriously beaten by four Los Angeles cops in 1991. The videotaped assault ignited a media firestorm, sparking the 1992 riots following the officers being acquitted.
“Theatre is where we do the undoable, and we say the unsayable,” says an extremely breathy Smith via phone three days prior to his recent two-night stint performing Rodney King at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts. He started developing the original work following King’s untimely June 2012 death from drowning in his backyard swimming pool.
Curious about what ultimately led to King’s demise, Smith says he imagined him as a tragic hero pre-dating the internet, calling King “the first reality television star.” “Rodney King was an ordinary man placed in an extraordinary circumstance,” continues Smith, “a human being struggling with the same issues that we all struggle with. He had the further complication of public notoriety; being fast forwarded, freeze-framed and rewound millions and millions of times all over the world. He was viral before viral was viral.”
A barefoot Smith takes center stage with only a microphone and square spotlight against an onyx ambiance. The soft-spoken, meticulous Berkeley, CA-born performer delivers investigative monologues full of octave changes, emphases on syllables, percussive sound effects, puns and periodic echoes. The Yale School of Drama alumnus manipulates bubbling aquatic sound effects, a pulsating heartbeat, news audio footage and majestic psychedelic music with the help of sound designer/frequent collaborator Marc Anthony Thompson, lighting designer Jose Lopez and production manager Kirk Wilson.
Smith profiles King’s life leading up to his devastating beating. The dramatist’s lines are visceral details spoken with a style equal parts spoken word poetry and documentary narration. Smith splices in subtle commentaries on police brutality, racism, black male pathology, violence, gun control and mental health in the African American community. A SAG award nominee known for his physical acting, the actor cast in ensemble films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Poetic Justice, Panther, Get on the Bus, Deep Cover, Mooz-Lum, American Gangster, Dope and Chi-Raq, relied strictly on surfing the internet for research.
He wanted Rodney King to come from an outsider’s perspective, not from recollections courtesy of King’s family and friends. “I didn’t know Rodney King personally. Never met him or saw him, but I’d always been inspired by him,” proclaims Smith, who majored in American Studies at Occidental College. “It was a tremendous loss, and I wanted to know why I was so moved when I heard about it.”
The passionate thespian earned an Obie, a Peabody and NAACP Theater awards for his critically acclaimed, Spike Lee-directed A Huey P. Newton Story. Smith has also revisited and portrayed Christopher Columbus, feuding baseball players Juan Marichal and John Roseboro and Frederick Douglass. He prides himself on bridging gaps between the past and the present using a variety of voices, acknowledging Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as major influences because they used their acting as both educational and political instruments.
Smith took time to pay homage to rock icon David Bowie, who passed two days prior to the interview. “He was always reaching into something new, something fresh,” recalls Smith. “There was always a theatricality to his music, so you couldn’t peg him down to any one thing. His connection to the culture was always profound and very genuine.”
Smith recalls performing A Huey P. Newton Story in 1997 at the Public Theater in New York following the death of hip-hop artist The Notorious B.I.G. He decided to incorporate the rapper into his quasi-period piece, insisting that being an avid listener of music is what fuels his polyrhythmic dramatic license. “Musicality is fundamental to my work when it’s working,” suggests Smith, adding that his work is heavily inspired by jazz.
“I always try to acknowledge the present moment. I don’t wanna engage in a historical piece or characters simply as an exercise of nostalgia, so hopefully we’re all living in the moment.” Considering the numbers of young African Americans being harassed and then killed by law enforcement in recent years, Smith believes Rodney King reflects the times.
“When this started in 2012, I thought this would be a prayer or memorial for Rodney [King],” continues Smith. “This whole thing over the last three-and-a-half years has just blown up incredibly. At one point, Rodney was unique, but now almost everyday you open your laptop, and there’s somebody else whose getting smashed.”
Smith is continuing to quench his thirst for connecting with history through his art. He’s excited about co-starring in The Birth of a Nation, actor/director Nate Parker’s biopic on Nat Turner which premiered at Sundance and made history by landing a $17.5 million deal from Fox Searchlight. Smith is directing the L.A. premiere of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, chronicling the last day of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. He and Thompson are crafting 500 Lives Per Mile, an account of the community of black and West Indian men who helped construct the Panama Canal.
“I feel privileged to be able to do what I do effectively,” says Smith following a gasp and waves of chuckles here and there. “I can play effectively in stillness and in silence.”
Smith was extremely happy to bring Rodney King to Atlanta during MLK weekend. The city cemented a place in the veteran talent’s heart beyond its civil rights past. The actor was first cast in the first of nine film projects, School Daze, with Lee.
Atlanta is a constant reminder, Smith says, of where his career started and why he continues to do what he loves. “Spike and I have a tremendous relationship,” says Smith, who has been friends with Lee for over 25 years. “It’s always good to be in Atlanta. It was because of the sacrifices that countless folks made that we’re able to come together, see the show and get along.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.