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Arts & Entertainment

Roger Guenveur Smith premieres new play about Rodney King

Roger Guenveur Smith performs
Roger Guenveur Smith performs "Who Shot Bob Marley" at the Calabash Literary Festival on May 25, 2007.
Georgia Popplewell/Flickr/Creative Commons

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UPDATE 4/19/2013: Roger Guenveur Smith is bringing back Rodney King to the Bootleg Theatre through May 5.

Roger Guenveur Smith is an Obie-award winning actor, director, and writer known for his portrayal of Black Panther leader Huey Newton in A Huey P. Newton Story. Rodney King, his newest work, plays at L.A.'s Bootleg Theater through August 19. Guenveur Smith joins Patt to talk about the challenges of his current role.

On his very personal connection with Rodney King:
"I am definitely an Angeleno I grew up here and I think that Rodney King has been a person who has continued to resonate in my imagination for 20 years. In Leimert Park at Chaos Gallery we undertook an improvised performance entitled "Chaos TV," just after he was beaten in March of 1991. We oddly anticipated what would happen a year later with that performance. I went on to do other performances with Mike Broyard entitled "Inside the Creole Mafia," in which Rodney King was imagined in a nightmare sequence. Another piece with my partner Mark Anthony Thompson, who also does the sound design for this piece. Christopher Columbus is still among us as a long entertainer with political aspirations who runs a travel agency on the side, and his big hit song is 'Do The Rodney King.'"

On why he decided to do the show so soon after King's death:
"I think like many of us, I was exceedingly moved when I got the news that Rodney King had passed, oddly enough on Father's Day this year. I wanted to know why it was that Rodney King should matter to me and why perhaps Rodney King should matter to an audience. The piece is actually set up in a series of questions, not unlike a post-mortem interview with Rodney King, or Glen as you call him. I think that this is a crucial kind of tension within this man. The man who was called Glen by his family, by his friends, and who became this person Rodney King through a kind of multimedia invention. I call him the first reality television star. He said that he didn't go to school to learn how to be Rodney King, and was propelled into our imagination, propelled many people into the street in 1992 and beyond, all over the world."

On King's now-famous improvised speech:
"I happen to think that the speech that Rodney King delivered May Day 1992 is one of the great American speeches, right up there with that other King. He was given a script of four pages, he was dyslexic, he threw away those pages and he spoke from the heart, which obviously had not been damaged in the same way his brain had been damaged. He was able to focus on something that was fundamental, not just for the city of Los Angeles, but I think for human civilization. He spoke to it haltingly, reluctantly, perhaps, but I think he gave us a lesson."

On the difficulty of making audiences see well-known personalities in a different light:
"Its very difficult and challenging. When I started working on Huey Newton, he had been dead only four years so he was very much remembered particularly by his family and his friend and comrades, his enemies even. To go up to the Bay Area and to play Huey Newton in front of that audience was an extraordinary experience and I felt that if I was able to survive that I was able to do anything on stage, and I did survive. Rodney King, my goodness, he left us Father's Day this year and here I am delivering his great speech at the Bootleg Theater. It's another challenge, but I think this particular piece is not as much a performance as it is a prayer."

On getting the tone right for the "Rodney King" show:
"I think that you go to the narrative and you go to the text. The text is full of such beautiful silences. So many replays and so many rewinds, and we remember that this is a man who just two days ago had been exceedingly disappointed. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind. Who went home and admittedly got drunk, who disguised himself in a Rasta wig, went to South Central and saw an electrical cord get severed sparks going everywhere then we went back home to the bottle. Who recognized Reginald Denny as someone with whom he had worked on a construction site. Who was brought the Spoils of War as I call it by comrades who had looted… Then he's given a four-page script, he's given a sweater a-la Huxtable, and we had just watched the last episode of the Cosby Show. He's given a tie and his lawyer says, 'Think Mr. Rogers," so he's out there in a sweater and a tie. And he improvises one of the great American speeches."

On the real tragedy of Rodney King's story:
"I think there's a very important aspect to this story which is rarely told, and that'd that Rodney King never testified in that first trial. He was essentially given a gag order by his own attorneys, so he never got to say that the officers said, 'run, n****r, run n****r, we're going to kill you, n****r.' We never got to hear that Sergeant Koon had found out that Rodney had been an usher at Dodger Stadium and said, 'Hey, Rodney, we really played some hardball tonight, didn't we.' We never got to hear any of that testimony. And yes he did get up, and he was trying desperately to save his own life. He says in his own book, 'The Riot Within,' that perhaps those beatings that his father had administered to him were in preparation for that moment. Father's Day, I have to say this, you know Rodney King's father was an alcoholic, and he felt that it was genetic, his addiction. He found his father in a bathtub, expired."

On what people can expect from the performance:
"The piece is improvised, I of course recite Rodney King's great speech, I recite also a rap which can't be recited on KPCC live, by a guy by the name of Willie D, who was a very popular rapper at the time with a group called the Ghetto Boys from Houston, Texas, who felt essentially that Rodney King was a sell-out, and that he shouldn't have been on TV crying for the cops who beat the hell out of him. So in between those two narratives, its largely improvised and I draw from the same archives that you've been drawing from."



Roger Guenveur Smith, actor, director, and writer

Watch Patt's interview with Rodney King: