Roger Guenveur Smith is a character actor who has been enlivening films for nearly 30 years. His presence as Smiley, the stuttering chorus of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, guaranteed him a fixed point on my radar screen for life, though in truth, it was his role as the conniving, pre-doomed Eddie in Bill Duke's Deep Cover (1992) that made it clear Smith was a strikingly memorable talent I would never miss a chance to watch.
In September of 1997, Smith came to Seattle to perform his riveting solo show A Huey P. Newton Story at On the Boards. The experience of seeing it has stayed with me ever since. "Changed my life" has become a corny platitude to describe things you enjoy, but Smith's show became a benchmark to me. Few stage actors I've seen have come within a mile of Smith's expressive vitality, his utter command of the room, his astonishing verbal dexterity (in terms of tempo, volume, pitch, timbre, force, and grace), and above all, his capacity as a writer-performer to harness those qualities in the service of a story that matters. Spike Lee, who cast Smith in several post-Smiley roles, made a film of the Newton show, which, despite being excellent, can never touch the sensation of being in the room that night.
Smith returns to Seattle this weekend with Rodney King, a very different show. He doesn't portray King the way he did Newton. Rather, he told me, the show is constructed as a "postmortem interrogation" and "journey through the many lives and times of Rodney King, which were abbreviated, unfortunately."
I interviewed Smith on the phone last week in advance of his return to Seattle.
Rodney King is a complex figure. He exists as a symbol, maybe the symbol, of being a victim of police brutality. Given the degree to which that is still such a syndrome in American life, it makes sense to deal with him dramatically, but because of the symbolic role he was thrust into—both during that disgusting video and after—it's hard to know who the man was. How do you approach him?
I'm trying to take my audience on a journey of discovery. The same one that I've been on since I opened up my laptop on Father's Day 2012 and saw that Rodney King had drowned in the bottom of his swimming pool. I was moved. I wanted to know why I was moved, and why, by extension, my potential audience would be moved.
I had never met Rodney King. I didn't know him personally. I referenced him several times in my work onstage. I didn't know him. I felt as if I wanted to know him. And perhaps that was my great personal tragedy—that I, like most of us, knew him as you say, only symbolically. I thought that my meditation would be simply for the season, maybe the summer of 2012.
For better or for worse, and mostly for worse, Rodney King has continued to be relevant. We just observed the 25th anniversary of his beating. The evening of March 3, 1991. He trended for a half-minute, on the third, alongside other things that are happening in America and all over the world. His 15 minutes of fame, I guess, were renewed and will be renewed again undoubtedly next year when we observe the 25th anniversary of the riots in LA.
Along the way of this theatrical journey, I've shared with an international audience this extraordinary story of a rather ordinary man who was thrust into the international limelight, and who I think gave one of the great American speeches when he asked us, "Can we all get along?" You forget that in the course of that speech, he answered his own question—in the affirmative. He said, "Yes we can. We can get along." And because we're addicted to the sound clip, the audio bite, we neglect to listen to the body of that speech and realize that, yes, he did answer his own question. How extraordinary it was for him to stand there, brain damaged, and drunk, and disappointed, and shell-shocked, PTSD-ed as he was, and able to come out with something as simple and as vital as what he gave us. I've been traveling the world now calling it the gospel according to Rodney King. He stopped the riot. He could've well said, "Burn it down." You couldn't blame him if he did. But he found a deep well of humanity that he was willing to share with us.
That speech of his went on for several minutes, and it's a very complicated experience to watch it. He's obviously addled, but it's miraculous that he could speak at all.
Oh yeah, and people were dying in the streets, in his name. In his name. Everybody's out there screaming, "This is for you. This is for you, Rodney King." He took that personally. He took that burden on. That was the weight, I think, that really took him to the bottom of that pool. To see 50-some-odd people lose their lives. Most of the fatalities were just crazy, crazy things. And of course, no cops died. It was just regular people on the street. Some of them were looting, but most of them were not. They were just innocent bystanders. One lady who was going to get a loaf of bread caught a stray bullet. Another dude fell off the back of a truck because there was no signal lights. The truck came to an abrupt stop and he fell out of the back of the truck and hit his head. He was the first casualty. Another guy got strangled in the produce section of a market. They called that riot related because the market that he usually would have gone to was burned down. It was crazy.
Extraordinary weight for anybody to carry. Just one death, let alone 56. He's sitting up there watching it on TV with the rest of us thinking, "Damn. If I hadn't been drunk driving that night, none of this would have happened."
Right, which may or may not even be true.
What was true? What do you mean?
I mean it may or may not be true that it wouldn't have happened. I'm sure it wouldn't have happened in that way at that moment, but the idea that the riots were a response to something that had been brewing for a very long time, and not just a response to that one verdict—
Oh, absolutely. One of the stories I get into in the piece is that of Latasha Harlins, who was a 15-year-old girl who was killed in a convenience store by the clerk because she was a shoplifting suspect. The community was just as much upset about the loss of Latasha Harlins and the lenient sentencing of the woman who killed her as they were about Rodney King, who was not from South LA. He was from Altadena. Latasha Harlins was from South LA. That incident happened not far from Florence and Normandie, which they called the flash point of the riots.
Back to the speech King made. It [That speech] upset a lot of people at the time. I understand that in the show you quote from the Willie D song "Rodney K," which states the objection very plainly. Even just the phrase, "Can we all just get along," has been—
You just misquoted it.
Yeah. It's not "just." There's no "just" there. That's important because "just" is a diminutive.
Right. Of course. "Can we all get along?"
Then he says at the end, we can get along. It's very important. Often misquoted.
And thereby undermined.
I thought it was important that I give that other perspective from Willie D, who says very succinctly: "Fuck Rodney King. I don't want to see this guy on TV crying. I don't want to see him in a mode of forgiveness. This is guerrilla warfare that we're engaged in right now, and he's not helping the cause." At least that's what he says in the rap. Those are really the two narrative bookends of the piece. Willie D at the beginning, and then Rodney King at the end—the entire speech—and then in between, the interrogation.
Does that interrogation reflect where you were at during that period?
Well, also where we all were at. Rodney King became this kind of seed, media seed. Mass media consumed him in a certain way. He went viral before viral was viral. As I say in the piece, he was the first reality TV star.
He was. People consumed him all over the world, rewinding him until he became nothing but this symbol of something. But then his name and his image have come up in really weird moments. Like, he was on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. He did celebrity boxing where he fought an ex-cop in Philadelphia. He was supposed to fight one of the cops who beat him. The cop who stepped down; he didn't do it. Then you'd see him pop up on, for example, BET comedy hour, where he's introduced from the audience in a really weird moment in which he stood up and acknowledged the audience's response in really good, self-deprecating humor. He became kind of a mini-celebrity almost.
One of the sound bites that Marc Anthony [Thompson, aka Chocolate Genius, sound designer of Rodney King] uses in the piece is of the very extensive interview that Don Lemon did with Rodney King a year before he died. Don Lemon treated him like he was a rock star, which in a way he was. Rodney took him to the place where he had his ass kicked and showed him, "Okay this is how it happened. I went down like this. Then I came up." It's crazy. It's this self-referential notoriety.
Then on the 20th anniversary of the riot, he comes out with a book. He's doing a book tour, speaking engagements, people are welcoming him, applauding him, asking him questions and what have you. Then before you know it, it's Father's Day and he's at the bottom of his pool. His death was not an anonymous one because eventually the autopsy came out, and it was revealed what was in his system, and what had happened on that night. None of it was flattering.
Hearing you talk about all this gives me a queasy sense that King's transformation from one kind of symbol to another kind of symbol is a perfectly American story, except the dimensions are all tragic.
As in any tragedy, it says as much about us as it does about the subject, because the question is: How far are we willing to go in order to consume these characters and deny them a basic dignity? Deny them a basic humanity?
This is a leap, but do you see a connection between the public's need to see people like King as characters and caricatures and our ongoing, pervasive failure as a culture to be real about the violence that's being done to them? I mean, whatever else there is to say about him, Rodney King was savagely beaten—
And the savages who beat him tried to make a savage out of him. That was their whole argument in court. That he had superhuman strength. They felt that he was on PCP—which the toxicology report disproved. I mean, we saw the same sort of testimony in Ferguson. We continue to see this kind of dehumanization of victims in order to approve or validate their beating, their degradation. How do you degrade someone? Well first of all, you have to dehumanize them and make the world feel that they are somehow worthy of the gun, the bullet, the noose, the machete, the tear gas, whatever weapon it is, the Confederate flag staff. Whatever weapon you have in hand.
Again, we go back to the gospel of Rodney King, which is kind of miraculous considering what he did go through, and what he would continue to go through.
Somebody went to the halfway house where Sergeant Stacey Koon was serving 30 months, because finally in the civil trial, two officers did serve time. Somebody went there to kill him, and Koon wasn't there because he had gone home for Thanksgiving to be with his family. This guy wound up killing somebody else. Then the police showed up and killed him. Even years after the original events, lives are still being lost because of it. Rodney King had to live with all of those losses.
Among many other things, it seems like a never-ending well of possibilities for a show like this.
Yeah, it's biblical.
How has your perspective on King and how he connects to the present day changed in the four years you've been doing this show?
I think all of our perspectives have changed, particularly in this country, in the last four years. Just think of all the things that have happened and are currently happening. We had a man down here in Orange County last weekend stabbed with a Confederate flag at a Klan rally. Stabbed with a flag. We also had a very brave young woman in South Carolina climb the flagpole and pull the Confederate flag down. We also had this guy choked to death in Staten Island. No indictments whatsoever. That was opening night in New York City when we did the play in Brooklyn. The non-indictment was announced. Eventually, the play we were doing in the theater morphed into a street demonstration. Then we have a young man, just yesterday, indicted for killing a 9-year-old in Chicago. That's a theme of another film that I did called Chi-Raq. We seem to be incapable of resolving conflict without violence. This is a national crisis, and obviously it's an international crisis. I've been calling this thing, this Rodney King thing, the gospel according to Rodney King. I think it's instructive. I think it's simple.