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THEATER | Theater Review

Smith's 'Newton' Still Remains a Very Powerful Stage Portrayal

February 22, 2001|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Huey P. Newton knew how to push society's panic button. Newton, who founded the Black Panther Party in the mid-1960s, was one of the most controversial and feared radicals of his day.

High on FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover's enemies' list, Newton was a study in contradictions, espousing violent reform while also establishing food and educational programs for the poor; trumpeting black pride and independence as he battled his own dependency on alcohol and cocaine. By the time of his murder in 1989, Newton had retreated into seclusion.

Roger Guenveur Smith addresses Newton's inherent contradictions in his one-man "A Huey P. Newton Story," which has returned to L.A., at Los Angeles Theatre Center's Theatre 3, after touring widely since 1995. The show garnered Obie Awards for Smith and Marc Anthony Thompson, who created the original sound score. Recently, Spike Lee directed the film version, scheduled to be shown this May on BET.

"Huey" has proved a durable vehicle for Smith--for good reason. In the profusion of solo shows, Smith's is a performance for all seasons, a dazzling dramatic jazz solo that plays the full range of human experience, from hilarity to pain.

Although Smith derived his material primarily from Newton's taped interviews and published writings, his portrait is more evocative than historical, a free-wheeling sampling from the life and times of a troubled champion whose compulsions arguably overshadowed his cause.

If Newton was larger than life, Smith, who directs himself, is huger than Huey. An audacious stage presence, Smith makes bold, bizarre choices in his out-sized characterization--choices that, given a lesser performer, might have seemed merely outlandish.

But Smith's unerring instinct for the eccentric keeps his vehicle firmly moored. Smith's Newton spends the first hour-plus of the play twitching in a chair, sharing scattershot reminiscences, conversing directly with the audience, and chain-smoking--sucking in smoke like a dying man's last gasp.

In a frenetic turn, alternately funny and bitter, Smith touches on subjects ranging from Newton's hard-scrabble upbringing on the mean streets of Oakland to the Ten-Point Program for social reform that Newton made the main plank in the Black Panther platform. David Welle's miasmic lighting and Thompson's surging blend of music and period audio clips contribute to the mood. But Smith's portrayal--a spellbinder that raises the bar of one-man shows to a new level--requires no embellishment.

* "A Huey P. Newton Story," Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends March 4. $15-$25. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 2 hours.

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