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Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man show asks America to take a closer look at Rodney King

Roger Guenveur Smith performs his one-man show
Roger Guenveur Smith performs his one-man show "Rodney King."

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Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, riots broke out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King.

With his fiery play titled simply “Rodney King,” actor and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith dives deeply into the story, placing the beating of King and the 1992 L.A. Riots a broader cultural context.

"Rodney King" is one of several solo shows that Smith has written and performed over the years. His film credits include “The Birth of a Nation,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “American Gangster.”  

A filmed performance of Smith’s Rodney King play, directed by Spike Lee, premieres today on Netflix.

Smith talked with The Frame host John Horn about why he felt compelled to turn Rodney King’s story into such an intensely personal show.

Interview highlights:

On how he first started working on "Rodney King":

I opened my laptop on June 17, 2012, Father's Day, to find that Rodney King had drowned in his backyard swimming pool. I was extremely moved. I felt as if I had lost my own brother. I wanted to know why I was moved. I never met Rodney King. But I had certainly referenced him in my work over the last 20 years. And I wanted to know why he mattered -- why his life mattered to me and why, by extension, would his life matter to my potential audience. I started working immediately and the first week of August I was onstage at my home theater -- The Bootleg Theater in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles -- and tried to work it out. I've been trying to work it out ever since.

On judgements about Rodney King:

Even the day that he died, there were people online saying that he deserved to die and that his loss was actually a better thing for all of us. It is a really harsh judgement that was accorded Rodney King even on the day of his death. I actually used some of those quotes in the play. I wanted to kick off the play with a very harsh judgement by Willie D of the Geto Boys -- a great group from the 5th ward of Houston, Texas. He said f--- Rodney King because Rodney King did not live up to the standards of machismo that Willie D had in that moment. He didn't think that Rodney King should be on television with any kind of reconciliation. He felt that Rodney King should get up there and say, 'Burn it down.' And of course he didn't.

On Rodney King's May 1, 1992 speech:

I think one of the great speeches in American history is that speech, given May Day 1992. It was Rodney King who was very disappointed, obviously. The verdicts of the officers who had beaten him were rendered two days before: not-guilty, not-guilty, not-guilty, not-guilty. Officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind. He was probably drunk. He was extraordinarily abused by the beating. In fact, he was brain-damaged. And he was severely traumatized by the lives that were being lost on the streets of Los Angeles in his name. He received 56 blows from the LAPD and it was 56 lives that were lost in the streets of Los Angeles. So he pulled it together. He rejected the four-page typed speech that had been given to him from his lawyers and he spoke from his heart. He rendered something that's extraordinarily crucial and still usable and I've been calling it "The Gospel According to Rodney King."

On how it felt to be in LA at that time:

My good brother, Mark Broyard from the Creole Mafia, called me immediately on the evening of April 29th, 1992 and said to me, Roger, can you believe that we're doing this again? Mark and I had grown up in Leimert Park right on Santa Barbara Avenue, which is now called Martin Luther King Boulevard. It was on Santa Barbara Avenue that the tanks of the National Guard rolled in [during the Watts Riots of 1965]. We witnessed this as small children and here we are as young adults witnessing the same sort of madness on our streets. 

On the beating of Reginald Denny:

Reginald Denny was a trucker who happened to be on the intersection of Florence and Normandie the evening of April 29th, 1992, just after the not-guilty verdicts were rendered. He was pulled out of his truck and beaten to a pulp with cinderblock. His head exploded as if it were a watermelon. A man shows up who had been watching the coverage from a helicopter and he shut off his TV and ran out of his house. He identified himself and said, I too am a trucker and I'm going to get you out of here right now. He puts him back into the cab of the truck and he commandeers the truck across Florence Avenue and he makes a left turn on Prairie Avenue, a.k.a. The Avenue of Champions, and makes a right turn into the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital emergency room parking lot. He got him there just in time. If he had delayed just a minute, he might as well have made a left on Prairie into the Inglewood Mortuary. 

On the similarities between the deaths of Rodney King and King's father:

Rodney King and his father, a man who was affectionately referred to as "The Kingfish," both were alcoholic drowning victims. It was Rodney who, as a teenager, found his father in his bathtub. Of course, Rodney was found in the bottom of his swimming pool some years later on Father's Day, on a day in which apparently he was preparing to have a family celebration. He was a father and grandfather as well.

On what he hopes viewers take away from watching 'Rodney King':

I call Rodney King the first reality TV star. I'd like the audience to look beyond the screen, beyond the soundbite to try to recognize and embrace the humanity of, not just Rodney King, but all of these people who have emerged through our television screens and now through our smart phones. We are now struggling with the ability to document violence instantaneously. Now, has that in some way affected the pervasive nature of violence in this world? No it has not. Tragically it has given those who would perpetrate violence and opportunity to expose it to the world in even more of a perverse way than they would have previous to the invention of the technology. Again, I would hope that this work would re-engage us in the very fundamental function of human civilization.

Rodney King asked the question, 'Can we all get along?' And he answers his question at the end of that speech and those of us who want to listen can listen and we can hear him say, 'Yes, we can. We can get along, we just have to work it out. We're all stuck here for a while so let's work it out. We can work it out.' But then at the end of that speech, the remix of that speech. I have to put some other words. I have to quote somebody else and I say, 'I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.' And that becomes the new mantra of America. And we have to work it out beyond that. 

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