Many of us know Rodney King from two things: his 1991 videotaped beating in Los Angeles and his 1992 speech to stop riots that erupted after four of the officers who beat him were acquitted at trial. But King, who had an oversized heart, also liked to ride the waves. Surfing was a favored, if unexpected, pursuit. So, too, was skiing.
These details emerge in actor and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith’s “Rodney King,” an intimate, absorbing, must-see solo show that kicked off Penumbra Theatre’s new season Thursday. Lit in a square with only a microphone for a prop, Smith lowers his voice as he addresses King, who, sometimes, is us. He asks probing questions, sometimes rhetorical ones, of a man whose name became synonymous with racial paroxysm.
Smith’s writing is smart, sharp and stylish. It is infused with freestyle poetry. He toasts and raps in a loose show that feels like an eruption of unbridled creativity. The words are by turns raw, gritty and lyrical, and they often hold you breathless.
If Smith is totally mesmerizing in “King,” it’s because of his theatrical rope-a-dope style. Like Muhammad Ali, he gets into your head before delivering a blow. Smith delivers in a whisper that gets us leaning in. Then he hits, bam, with a revelation or by popping the microphone with hard consonants or, even, dropping the mic.
Smith’s play is a play between head and heart, between the disturbing things that we know and what we wish for.
He goes through the biography of King, who is raised by a stern, door-knocking Jehovah’s Witness mom and a father who battled his own demons before drowning. We learn of King’s early brush with the law and his work-release service fighting forest fires (that firefighting metaphor is deployed to good effect). And we see him shadow boxing with addictions. He staggers as he knocks back spirits, keeping company with his girlfriend Brandy. He watches the riots, first on TV, then, disguised in a Bob Marley costume he’d bought for Halloween, from an intersection in the midst of the mayhem. We finally see him, struggling for life in his backyard pool after a drug-and-booze-fueled binge in 2012.
The production, which runs just over an hour and has a raw sound score by Marc Anthony Thompson, becomes a window into our nation’s roiling soul from 20 years ago — a reflection that pushes into the present.
In his twisting body we see the hurts, the incomprehensibility, the soft desire for freedom, understanding and justice. As Smith dances, there is a sense of things — closure, comprehension, common touch — being just out of reach. The actor interpolates the words of the musicians, including the Geto Boys who lambasted King for being a sissy when he asked, “Can we all get along,” and Bob Marley, whose “Burnin’ and Lootin’ ” becomes a kind of anthem in the show.
This “King,” so timely and visceral, is as much a character inquiry as it is an exorcism of a scenario that the nation keeps reliving.