Roger Guenveur Smith is a writer, director, and one of those enigmatic actors whose work continues to illuminate the international stage and screen. This classically trained Yale School of Drama artist is also a non-traditional playwright of numerous performance art one-man shows, and his Obie Award-winning solo portrayal of Black Panther leader Huey Newton in A Huey P. Newton Story was adapted into a Peabody Award-winning telefilm directed by Spike Lee.
In 1996, Smith electrified Woolly Mammoth audiences with his landmark A Huey P. Newton Story, a performance that he won a 1997 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production.
For two weeks, July 9-20th, Roger Guenveur Smith returns to Washington, D.C. once again as Woolly presents his latest provocative solo work, Rodney King.
In The Playwright’s Playground interview, Roger discusses the inspiration for his Rodney King solo performance, the depth of his emotions when he heard about Rodney King’s passing, and his playwriting /performance art theatrical career.
With Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak with Roger about his intriguing film career, the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, and his auspicious quarter of a century Actor-Director teaming with Spike Lee, an unparalleled collaboration in America Cinema.
Sydney-Chanele: Let’s talk about your many professional lives. As you just mentioned, you are a Professor, you are a writer, a Director, a performer, and you are an actor. What title do you most embrace? What description best identifies your career?
Roger: I don’t know. I would like to think of myself as a cultural worker. But before I’m a cultural worker, I am a citizen. The definition of that word – citizen – is something I aspire to.
And how do you define ‘citizen’?
Ah . . . Yes. Ruby Dee.
Do you think of yourself as a playwright?
I think that in a sense I am, but I don’t think that my plays are traditional that they are banged out by typewriter or a computer. A lot of my work is scripted and a lot of it is unscripted and improvised, and always changing and flexible.
For example, I’ve been working with Frederick Douglass speeches since I was an undergraduate. Those letters – they don’t change. I have performed them basically in chronological order, always editing and reediting material – but it’s always Frederick Douglass. You don’t mess with that. That piece is bookended by original narrative which I have done, and I suppose that will change as the years go on. That’s something straightforward that has been the kind of the hallmark of my work for many years. The same way Mark Twain has been the hallmark of Hal Holbrooke’s career.
I just saw the new documentary on Hal Holbrook and his career performing Mark Twain at AFI Docs (Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.) Speaking of documentaries, have you ever considered making a documentary of your own?
I think that in many ways is theatre work is documentary theatre. I’ve done work on the Watts Towers Project . . . I’m working on a piece now with Marc Anthony, called 500 Lives per Mile which is inspired by the construction of the Panama Canal. That was the human cost of constructing the Canal, and many of those lives were Black West-Indians who were recruited to do that very dangerous work.
So have you never had an interest in making a documentary film? You prefer the art of theatre performance?
I’m not a filmmaker. I haven’t put that hat on at this point. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a filmmaker but I’ve collaborated with some pretty good ones.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Spike Lee. How did the collaboration with Spike Lee come about?
Well, I was doing my first gig in repertoire theatre in Minneapolis, Mn. I was doing Pinter, Ionesco, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Then one day I went to the cinema to see this film called She’s Gotta Have It– and I sat through it twice. I was so fascinated by the work of this guy, Spike Lee, and I went about the business of finding out what was the next thing he was doing.
I found out the next thing was a film about a college campus, called School Daze. I was able to get a cattle call audition and lined up with hundreds of other people to read bits from the script. And, I had to sing a song, and tell a joke. Spike was sufficiently impressed with what I did to cast me in School Daze and that was our first collaborative adventure.
Even in School Daze I had a lot of collaborative responsibility. I was in charge of training the fraternity pledges because Spike was doing everything – producing, writing, directing and acting in the film as well. So he couldn’t do the training that we needed to do, that we we’re doing on a daily basis.
Then there was Do the Right Thing. We’re actually celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Do the Right Thing this summer.
Congratulations! That’s great. Any thoughts you’d like to share?
Thank you. You know that film was the Obama’s first date. (I did not.) Things could have turned out differently if that film had been Driving Miss Daisy. (We both laugh.)
Your last film together was your theatrical performance turned into the 2001 film -A Huey P. Newton Story. Spike Lee has worked with many actors in all his films but what made your collaboration such a success over the years that you worked together so many times?
I think that even though Spike Lee is considerably shorter than I am, we do see eye to eye. (Roger G. Smith is 6′ 2″ and Spike Lee is listed at 5′ 5″.)
There are many things. You know, I think it’s fortunate that we are of the same generation. I knew from when I first saw She’s Gotta Have It that he was on to something vital.
I think the most vital contribution he’s made in the last 30 years is that he’s brought a new generation of filmmakers with him. He has not only inspired a new generation of filmmakers, but he’s hired them as well. He too is a teacher, and it’s tremendous that he has been sharing his gifts in the way that he has. I’d like to think that I am doing the same thing.
Taking a look at the Tony Awards for the last several years as an example, it could be argued that there are more diverse opportunities for African Americans in the theatre than there is in film. Is there any truth in that for you?
I don’t know, if the Tony Awards or even the Academy Awards should be indicative of how well black folks are doing in those respective media. Awards come and go. What is most interesting – and I think most vital – is what is bubbling underneath in the independent film world and in the independent performance world.
I think these are good times creatively. I see it happening musically, I see it happening in performance, and I see it happening in the visual arts. We are in a moment where there are lots of different colors in the black spectrum and that’s exciting. That’s exciting! I think commercially these are challenging times, because that goes along with capital, economics, and the function of the corporation in terms of what they’re giving us.
There are always challenges and contradictions in the commercial realm. That’s why I like to into the independent realm when we talk about what’s really being achieved on stage and on the screen.
You’ve done a lot of independent films, and I love that about your work.
I’m working on an independent film right now.
What is the film?
I’m working with a couple of students of mine from Cal Art. It’s a very barebones, indie film called Why Lie?
What performance in your filmography are you most proud?
I think The Huey P. Newton Story is certainly a signal collaborative achievement. As I said, it came out of 600 improvised performances and live sound from Michael Anthony Thompson and a beautiful score including a solo by talented saxophonist, Branford Marsalis. It represented the culmination of collaborative work – going all the way back to School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam. That’s a lot of work.
I got to play a great variety of characters in the series of that work, and that’s a very unique body of work that’s unparalleled in the American cinema. Even Scorsese and DeNiro have not done that range of work.
How many films have you and Spike Lee made together?
Was it a concerted effort?
No, not a concerted effort, but one of our nicknames for Spike is “Coach.” And as you develop a team, he goes back to the same players.It’s been a great experience. The Huey P. Newton Story I think, was a good combination of what Spike brought to the table in terms of his “A” team and what I brought to the table with my “A” team. We made something of lasting value there.
The Playwright’s Playground-Unscripted and Improvised-Roger Guenveur Smith Discusses His Solo Performance of ‘Rodney King’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.
Roger Guenveur Smith’s website.
An excerpt from his monologue Rodney King.
An excerpt of the Spike Lee directed film A Huey P Newton Story. Roger Guenveur Smith is Huey P. Newton.
The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Series, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.