Rodney King: Roger Guenveur Smith’s Startling Performance Piece

The first sound you hear over the loudspeakers is that of water. What? It doesn’t make sense. Is something leaking in the theater? No, as the evening with Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King progresses, we discover that Rodney, like Hamlet’s Ophelia, has had too much of water. He meets his end at the bottom of the pool, a pool bought, literally, with his own blood.

Smith’s one-man show is a mesmerizing account of the incident and the man that sparked the LA riots over two decades ago. The evening I saw the play at the BRIC House Ballroom in downtown Brooklyn, the air was thick with the just-announced news that Eric Garner’s killer would not be indicted. The play could scarcely have been more relevant than at that very moment. Smith’s prescient fascination with Rodney King hit us between the eyes that very night.

And what a story. With just a microphone, on an illuminated square platform, Smith tells the story of what happened to King–this ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances. Smith moves and swings through the story, playing all the parts like a John Coltrane quartet, showing us the very soul of the man who would have much preferred just to go home and finish his malt liquor. This is Rodney, an uneducated man, who at his moment realized, Hamlet-like, that he had the lead part in History’s play, and must try his best to fulfill his responsibility. This inarticulate man who was forced to be silent during his entire trial delivers some of the most famous words ever said about race in America.

I can’t think of a more important performance playing today in America. Roger Guenveur Smith has grappled with history and responded splendidly, in a truly artistic way. He plays a variety of characters in the story besides King and creates a prism of history with all of its facets. The final image is a haunting one that left me shaken, and asking where do I stand in all this.

You can listen to the interview broadcast on WBAI 99.5 FM that I did with Roger Guenveur Smith  by clicking here. He is a fascinating man and the 15-minute interview is well worth your time. He talks about the genesis of the play and his work as an actor, director, writer, and historian. Smith will be performing the play all around the country. You can go to his website for more information about his performing schedule.

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