‘Rodney King’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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“Can we all get along?  Can we all get along?” is the urgent, impassioned five word plea that became a cultural touchstone for the nation twenty-two years ago.

The 1991 videotaped brutality of 25 year old Rodney King being repeatedly beaten, kicked, and clubbed by four L.A. police after an eight-mile-long, high-speed car chase and the six days of deadly rioting that followed in1992 when the officers were acquitted, are events that stopped a city and forever changed the conversation and perception of race in America.

‘Rodney King’ by Roger Guenveur Smith. Photo by Patti McGuire.

‘Rodney King’ by Roger Guenveur Smith. Photo by Patti McGuire.

Take a moment to think about Rodney King and what you think of him.

For two weeks thru July 20 at Woolly Mammoth Theater, Roger Guenveur Smith with his original, one-man show Rodney King that explores not only the man, it also remembers the victims during the L.A. riots in 1992 and the culture of violence that enveloped Los Angeles at that time.

The course of Rodney King’s life is examined from the time of the beating with flashbacks to his childhood until his untimely demise. For as publicized as the Rodney King beating and the subsequent trial were, in the course of one hour the audience discovers just how little about Rodney King and the time are known. Or better, perhaps after two decades we realize how little is remembered.

Obie Award-winning artist Roger Guenveur Smith returns to Woolly Mammoth after presenting his critically acclaimed portrayal of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton in A Huey P. Newton Story in 1996. The production was adapted into a Peabody Award-winning telefilm directed by Spike Lee and Smith won a Helen Hayes Award in 1997 for Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production for his performance.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s mesmerizing, riveting Rodney King monologue illuminates, educates and provides brow-raising insight into America’s endlessly complicated relationship with its racial past and present. A unique journey of rebellion and redemption, Rodney King is an important work and an ingenious conceptualized allegory on humanity and race relations in America.

The social and political references woven into the extemporaneous thoughts of Smith’s impromptu, stream of consciousness, syncopated rhythms of poetic justice showcases the versatility and compassion of the classically trained Yale School of Drama artist. There is a visceral, on the edge excitement about the daring, rawness of Smith’s presentation. The performance grabs you and doesn’t let go. The taut, in-your-face directive will prompt a reaction, and undoubtably will make you feel.

The stage is bare except for the spotlight beamed on the center of the stage. The black empty back drop is a deceptively simple set. (The smart Set and Lighting Design are both by Jose Lopez.) Yet the blank canvas serves as metaphor for the artistry still to be performed and sets the stage for the masterwork to be performed. It’s all about the message and the spoken word.  The lights dim, and dressed in jeans in a black T-shirt and bare feet, Roger Guenveur Smith appears. And with a jolt, through improvised, unscripted and impassioned storytelling, the saga of Rodney King, a flawed but good-hearted everyman begins.

While it is still an evolving and highly experimental piece – the show is slightly different every night – Guenveur said after the Opening Night performance that this Woolly Mammoth run is the longest for the solo show and by the end, it might actually be a formed written piece. Beautifully conceived, his history-infused and intense approach to archival work is expertly done.

The striking Marc Anthony Thompson sound design rocks with a visceral confrontation; while Smith’s provocation of impossible questions and unrealized truths will likely open  audiences’ minds to the media-saturated Rodney King beating and the surrounding events of the L.A. Riots in a new way.

This performance is not Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King, nor is it an attempt to impersonate Rodney Glen King (or Glen as we learn his family and friends called him.) Rather, Smith maintains the perspective of the outsider, and the performance is set up as a series of questions with Rodney King. The internalized conflict from within the Rodney King character and the chaos and violence that is happening at that time in L.A. provides ongoing tension; Smith creates a brilliant metaphor for race relations and the volatile ‘no justice, no peace’ undercurrents that run through communities throughout the nation.

‘Rodney King’ by Roger Guenveur Smith. Photo by Patti McGuire.

‘Rodney King’ by Roger Guenveur Smith. Photo by Patti McGuire.

Stylized silences, punctuate the cadenced, rhythmic fluidity of Smith’s mostly own narrative voice, as the rewind and many replays of words and phrases are repeated. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The text is delivered while his lyrical Tai Chi movement doubles as what one could perceive as the subject’s underwater swim strokes.

Not only does the constant motion set a tone and assist with the pacing, the impact syncs the physicality of the actions with what verbally is being said. But it is the gut-wrenching sound effect of the more than 50 blows of the metal baton and the six kicks that reverberates as Smith methodically goes through what seems like was the never-ending violence to Rodney King on March 3, 1991.

At the age of 47, shortly after the publication of his book “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption,” Rodney King died the same way as his father did – at the bottom of a pool of water. (His father died in a bath tub and Rodney at the bottom of his backyard pool.) Autopsy reports confirm that he died of an enlarged heart. Smith eloquently points outs the tragic irony.

The Rodney King verdict ignited a firestorm of national and international outrage and within hours Los Angeles was on fire. The L.A. Riots of 1992 is the worst in U.S. history. Reginald Denny and the other ‘unknown’ victims of the tragic violence during that heighten time are not forgotten in this Rodney King performance and the killing of Latasha Harlins is particularly troubling. Harlins, a 15-year-old girl falsely accused of shoplifting orange juice, was shot in the back of her head by the convenience store clerk.

$3.8 million was awarded to Rodney King after he sued the city for brutality. Fifty-four people were killed in the LA riots. In the twenty-two years since then, we can look at our country’s history and see how the more things change when it comes to injustice in America how often it remains the same. As explosive as this electrifying Rodney King one man show is, it is equally empowering in a nuanced way that might sneak up you because of the lasting effect it leaves. We can learn from the past, and lessons can be delivered in different ways.

The gravitas of Rodney King is the refreshing reminder of the importance not to forget and to know your history. The trials and tribulations that are had and overcome, often serve as an example to lessons to be learned by the greater good.

Rodney King faced tragedy with the emotional steps of triumph when he faced the nation in the midst of the Riots. Smith says King’s improvised “Can we all get along” speech is a sermon, and as we near the end, the lights lower and from the back left corner of the centerstage as Roger Guenveur Smith delivers Rodney King’s heartfelt statement in its entirety.

Smith reminds the audience with that deep penetrating, unblinking stare that has become recognizable through his film work (Eight films with Spike Lee including School Daze, Do  the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and American Gangster . . . ) that Rodney King didn’t want to be remembered as the person who started the riots but as one who was a part of the resolution. Rodney King builds upon that legacy.

With one last gasp, I interpret Smith’s final demonstrations as a powerful prologue for the second chance Woolly Mammoth audiences and we all have to learn from Rodney King’s life story and the instructive lessons of the past.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo performance is a prayer for peace and the healing of a nation. Rodney King is more than a cry out loud. It’s a meditative appeal for understanding and lasting change. Breathe.

Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.

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Rodney King plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC – through July 20, 2014. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.

LINKS:
An excerpt from Roger Guenveur Smith’s monologue Rodney King.

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.

Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele: ‘Unscripted and Improvised – Roger Guenveur Smith, Discusses Making Movies & His Unparalleled Collaboration with Spike Lee’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

Magic Time! John Stolteberg on ‘Rodney King’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s website.

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