On Father’s Day three years ago, actor, playwright and director Roger Guenveur Smith was at home in Los Angeles working on a show about the dad of Holocaust diarist Anne Frank when he popped open his laptop to news that stunned him.
The lifeless body of Rodney King, a semiliterate construction worker who unexpectedly became a byword for racial tumult after his 1991 videotaped beating by white L.A. police officers, had been found at the bottom of his backyard pool.
“I felt as if I’d lost a blood brother,” said Smith. He shelved his other projects and plunged into research about King. “I wanted to know why he mattered so much to me, and in such a personal way.”
Within weeks, Smith was onstage at Los Angeles’ Bootleg Theatre, his artistic home, testing out the seeds of what would become “Rodney King.” The one-hour solo show, which kicks off Penumbra Theatre’s season in a two-week run starting Thursday, has been hailed as “hypnotic” (New York Times) and “intensely cathartic” (Washington Post).
Smith describes the production as “more prayer than performance” — an attempt to find the grace notes as he orbits the legacy of a searching, flawed man who unexpectedly became a focal point for social justice issues that remain timely.
“We brought this show to the Twin Cities to revisit the trauma of what happened then and to open space for conversation around what’s happening across the country now,” said Penumbra co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy. “It’s important to have artist commentary on social justice issues, and we wanted to celebrate Roger’s innovation and courage as he serves as the conscience of our nation.”
Smith said the beating of King, and the riots that ensued after an all-white jury acquitted four of the officers who pummeled him, was America’s first reality TV show.
“It was all televised for our consumption, neatly so, and yet there is so much we don’t know about him. For example, his family called him Glen, his middle name. ‘Rodney Glen King’ was on his license, but the person we call Rodney King is a media construction.”
In the show, Smith educates audiences by going into King’s history while touching on characters such as police officers and neighbors as well as Reginald Denny, a white man beaten at the outset of the riots.
Solo shows, Spike films
“Rodney King” is the latest work of a protean artist of stage and screen. Smith, who grew up in California and graduated from Occidental College and the Yale School of Drama, won a raft of awards, including an Obie, for his 1995 solo show, “A Huey P. Newton Story,” about the revolutionary and writer who co-founded the Black Panther Party. That one-act was turned into an award-winning film by Spike Lee, Smith’s frequent collaborator.
Smith’s roster of solo shows also includes “Juan and John,” about baseball players Juan Marichal and John Roseboro; “Frederick Douglass Now,” inspired by the 19th-century abolitionist and statesman, and “Who Killed Bob Marley?” about the reggae icon, who was his friend.
He has appeared in a raft of Lee’s films, including “Do the Right Thing” (he played Smiley, the heroic stutterer), “Malcolm X,” “School Daze,” “He Got Game” and “Get on the Bus.” Smith just wrapped a shoot for Lee’s “Chiraq,” co-starring his Yale Drama schoolmate Angela Bassett. His extensive screen credits also include “Eve’s Bayou,” and HBO’s “K Street” and “Oz.”
Ask him about the Twin Cities, and he’s quick to point out that he’s presented more work in Minnesota than any other place outside New York and Los Angeles. From Walker Art Center to the Guthrie, from Penumbra to Macalester College, he has a fondness for the vitality of the arts — and audiences — in the Twin Cities.
In fact, Smith traces his Spike Lee connection to the Twin Cities. He was working at the Guthrie in the 1980s when he attended a screening of Lee’s breakthrough film “She’s Gotta Have It.”
“I looked up Spike and said, I’ve got to work with him somehow,” he said.
A creative departure
“Rodney King” is a creative departure for Smith, who normally goes through personal archives and interviews family members for his solo shows. And he often becomes the characters, revealing their souls in the first person.
For “Rodney King,” he has relied on information in the public domain, including King’s memoir, “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption.” And he does not embody King until the very end of the show, instead asking questions of King as if he were alive.
“I wanted to maintain the perspective of the outsider,” he said. “I wanted to get away from the personal pronoun, and focus entirely on King.”
And what can we learn from King?
“There’s a gospel there,” said Smith, almost going into character. “On May Day, May 1, 1992, while the city burns, he’s drunk again and severely brain-damaged. He’s in a suit and tie, because that reads the Huxtables. He’s got a bullet-proof vest on and his Jheri curls are twinkling. He’s given a four-page script by his lawyers, the same lawyers who gagged him during the trial because they didn’t want him to embarrass himself with how he talked.
“He’s got this four-page script to read in front of the cameras, but he can’t because he’s developmentally disabled. He’s dyslexic. He’s not like Dr. [Martin Luther] King, who would go to cities like L.A., when they were still charbroiling, and do a riot act. This King is a blue-collar guy, no doctorate of divinity from Boston University. He had sustained 56 bangs upside his head and had a metal plate behind his right eye.
“Somehow, he dug into his enlarged heart and was able to speak to the fundamentals of human survival, and stop a riot with a speech that begins with a question that everyone knows. ‘Can we all get along?’ ”