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, and he won the 1997 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production for that performance. 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 this special edition of The Playwright’s Playground Smith says he felt that he needed an outlet to explore Rodney King because he was trying to figure out why he was feeling the depth of emotions when he heard that Rodney King had passed on June 17, 2012. Roger Guenveur Smith illuminates, educates and provides insight into our recent history.
On Wednesday: The conversation continues in an interview with Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele: Roger Guenveur Smith discusses his film career, the 25th Anniversary of Do the Right Thing and his collaborative working relationship with filmmaker Spike Lee, which is unparalleled in America cinema.
Sydney-Chanele: Why did the death of Rodney King affect you in such a deep way that it inspired you to write a theatrical solo performance?
Roger: It was really kind of an emotional curiosity. I was exceedingly moved when I got the news that Rodney King had passed, oddly enough on Father’s Day. I wanted to know why it was I felt the way that I did, and why Rodney King mattered to me. Why does Rodney King matter to me in the way that he does, and by extension how could he possibly matter to my audience?
What did you learn about Rodney King in your preparation that helped shape your theatrical work?
Leading up to his death, Rodney King was happy and very hopeful. He had just published a book entitled, The Riot Within and he was doing a book tour, he was doing interviews, and it seemed like he had finally gotten it together. His wounds were finally healing. I think that’s one of the reasons why it was so shocking and so traumatic to have lost him the way we did and when we did, on the twentieth anniversary of the riot. A very important aspect to this story which is rarely told is that Rodney King was essentially given a gag order by his own attorneys. He never testified in that first trial. I think that the improvised speech that Rodney King delivered May Day 1992 is one of the great American speeches. He was given a script of four pages by his lawyer and he threw away those pages and he spoke from the heart. I think he gave us a lesson.
How long did it take you to construct and write this show?
It was a matter of weeks. I was on stage with this work the first week of August (2013.) He passed in mid June of 2013. It was a matter of weeks really.I started at Bootleg Theatre, which is my home in Los Angeles, and then went on to do the Under the Radar Festival at Public Theatre in Los Angeles and then the Under the Radar Festival in New York. I’ve taken it to Amsterdam recently, which was a interesting experience.
Have you refined the show or the running time into what audience will see at Woolly Mammoth?
Bootleg Theatre is one of the great multi-disciplinary venues in L.A. – they have a wonderful indie music scene – but they have very thin walls. (Roger says laughing.) So whatever happens theatrically, needs to happen before the music starts. So it was my responsibility to finish the performance by 9 pm every night. I didn’t want to start at 7 pm or 7:30 pm, particularly in August because it’s still light outside. So I said, I’ll start at 8 pm, but I promise I’ll finish by 9 pm. That was kind of a discipline for me in constructing this piece, and it was a good one. So the show always came in at 58 minutes. It’s an unscripted 58-minute performance; it’s a change every night.
How extensive was your research and what surprised you in crafting this solo work?
My research this time around was not comparable to what I had done in previous pieces. For example, A Huey P. Newton Story was probably a year-long research in which I interviewed comrades, family members; it was a very comprehensive research. Although A Huey P. Newton Story resulted, that research was simply the foundation for an improvised performance. There were more than 600 improvised performances there. With Juan and John which is about two baseball players, Juan Marichal and the late John Roseboro, I did research with family members, I talked with Juan Marichal in a series of meetings and that gave me great material for the performance. But with this I wanted to maintain the perspective of the outsider. I found the format of asking questions as someone who is approaching this man from an emotional curiosity. So I didn’t try to contact Rodney King’s family. I didn’t try to contract people in his life.
It sounds like you are approaching this work from a much more personal perspective.
No. No. The other piece of my discipline in this piece is that I never use the personal pronoun I, in reference to Roger. I wanted the focus to be on Rodney King and not the theatricalized version of Roger’s relationship with Rodney King. Of course the grand result of all this is Roger getting their snippets of Rodney King and people coming to the theatre to see that essence. But in terms of the narrative construct, it is not that. It definitely is not that.
Why the different approach this time? What makes this subject – Rodney King – different?
I think because I have in recent seasons been doing the personal narrative and self revelation, I didn’t want to do that this time. I thought the piece would be better served by a journalistic approach. Also, I wanted to be the outsider – an outsider who obviously has a very intense approach to archival work. That’s what I do; that’s also what I teach. I teach a course in Performing History at Cal Art where students are encouraged to pursue archival material to inspire improvised performance.
What have you learned about yourself, and what do you want audiences to be left with after experiencing Rodney King?
I think I always have to go back to the basics of communication – truth. The same thing I try to impart to my students, I am reminded of when I am performing the Rodney King piece. At the highest and most inspiring level, I think this piece is not so much a performance but rather a prayer.
That’s a powerful statement and I very much look forward to experiencing your Rodney King performance. I’d like to wrap with a random but fun and revealing question. What are three of your favorite biographies or must read books that you’d recommend to others?
I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, The Narrative Life of an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, and The Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Encyclopedia Britannica – that’s classic! I read that as a kid you read the encyclopedias for fun!
Yes I did, for fun. Thanks so much. I look forward to DC!
Excerpt from his monologue Rodney King.
This is an exerpt of the Spike Lee directed film A Huey P Newton Story. Roger Guenveur Smith is Huey P. Newton.
Writer and actor, Roger Guenveur Smith, recites Frederick Douglas’ “Fourth of July Speech at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2009.
Roger Guenveur Smith’s website.
The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwright 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.