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Roger Guenveur Smith searches inward for real Rodney King

October 03, 2013|By Reed Johnson
  • "Rodney King," a solo show by Roger Guenveur Smith, continues at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
"Rodney King," a solo show by Roger Guenveur Smith, continues… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Like Walt Whitman, Roger Guenveur Smith contains multitudes. In various past one-man shows he has portrayed Huey P. Newton, baseball brawling immortals Juan Marichal and John Roseboro and dozens of others, while probing the great American themes of identity, individuality, ethnicity, class and power.

His latest solo endeavor, "Rodney King," with an original sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson and lighting by Jose Lopez, is playing through Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City as part of RADAR L.A., International Festival of Contemporary Theater. Charles McNulty, The Times' theater critic, praised the show, calling Smith "the jazz master of the form, riffing as freely and confidently as Sonny Rollins on sax."

"Smith doesn't so much set out to define King as demonstrate the way in which he was overwhelmed by other people's definitions — verbally assaulted in as relentless a manner as he was physically attacked by the police on that fateful night of March 3, 1991," McNulty writes. "Smith restores to King what King himself was always trying to wrestle back from the media before his sad death ... his simple humanity."

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Culture Monster recently spoke with the actor about the show.

By using found texts and hip-hop beats in this show you create a different poetic language and cadence. You wanted to break open the cliches of language and of representation that entrapped King and limit our understanding of him. So it seems this show is as much about language as about anything else.

Absolutely. It’s about the reclamation of language, working against cliche. No, [the night he was beaten by the L.A.P.D.] he wasn’t playing N.W.A. in the car, "... tha Police," he was playing De La Soul, the most harmless hippie hip-hop that there was. And, no, he was not of the ghetto, he was of Altadena. He was a country guy, as it were, he loved fishing, he loved swimming, he eventually loved skiing and surfing. He was a quintessential Californian. And he was not what the police made him out to be, and he was not what we tried to make him out to be. And in his great speech he says, "I’m not what they’re picking me out to be." Not making me out to be, "I’m not what they’re picking me out to be."

As in, "picked out of a police lineup."

Exactly. And if you listen closely to that speech, what’s not said or what’s mis-said, is just as important as what’s said. Because in the speech he wants to say, "Let’s try to be the change that we imagine." But he never gets to it. He says, "I’m not a racist," but he never gets to the word "racist." He says, "I’m neutral." He says, "I love everybody." He says, "I love people of color." And he meant to go on and say he loved white people, too, but he never got to that. He’s a man who’s drunk, he’s brain-damaged, he’s just had the most disappointing moment of his life: these cats who’ve beat him within an inch of his life are deemed not guilty.

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But he rejected reading a scripted speech when he went before the cameras while the riot was going on.

He tosses it. He speaks from his heart. It’s an improvised performance. He speaks from his "abnormally enlarged heart," which was revealed in the autopsy. It seemed to be appropriate that that was the only major abnormality in Rodney King. Just a normal middle-age black man with a goatee and a receding hairline!

So where were you on 3/3/91 and 4/29/92?

I was here in Los Angeles, and we immediately did a piece called "Kaos TV" at [independent filmmaker] Ben Caldwell’s studio in Leimert Park, Kaos Network. I played the host and my partner from the Creole Mafia, Mark Broyard, played kind of a street-corner correspondent who was giving people proper cover-up techniques to deal with the LAPD. I had a big map behind me and I was pointing to all kinds of imagined conflagrations all over the city. And in a sense we predicted what was to happen on 4/29/92, a year before it happened.

So ’65 and ’92 was a bookend of my childhood and young adulthood in L.A.: two riots, which I witnessed first-hand. Sixty-five, that was the year that Rodney was born, that was the year that Watts blew up, that was the year that Simon Rodia died, that was the year that Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro upside the head with a baseball bat, that was the year that Bill Cosby won an Emmy for "I Spy," the first Negro to win an Emmy.

In the show you connect these dots about King’s life, which were kind of hiding in plain sight -- the connection with Reginald Denny, for example.

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