Theater review: ‘Juan and John’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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The montage of history never lets up in Roger Guenveur Smith’s free-flowing solo piece “Juan and John,” which opened Thursday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Centering on an infamous day in the annals of baseball, the work branches out into a meditation on roughly half a century of public and private life. This whirlwind collage can get blurry in its subjective leaps, but Smith manages to hold together the material through the sheer urgency of his storytelling — his burning need to be a witness to what textbooks can render abstract and unreal.
The incident that provokes this geyser of memory happened on Aug. 22, 1965. Smith, a youngster, was at home in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles watching on TV as his beloved Dodgers played the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. Sandy Koufax was pitching for the Dodgers; Juan Marichal, known as the Dominican Dandy, was pitching for the Giants. The Dodgers were leading, 2-1, and the game was getting heated.
The details of what followed are still debated, but during Marichal’s at-bat in the bottom of the third, Koufax apparently threw a retaliatory pitch that sailed over Marichal’s head. Dodger catcher John Roseboro, perceived as taking justice into his own hands, came close to hitting or perhaps grazed Marichal’s ear with the ball on his throw back to Koufax. Words were exchanged and after Marichal hit Roseboro with his bat, all hell broke loose.
This dark day in sports made an indelible impression on Smith, who widens the context of his experience of this scene by jump-cutting to the Watts Riots, which had started less than two weeks earlier. His father, a lawyer, took his son and went to check on the motel he owned, giving the boy a front-row seat on tumultuous current events. Smith reads us excerpts of a student paper he wrote when he was 16 about what he saw, recalling the sound of whiskey bottles “popping in the summer heat,” and the sight of “the National Guard with their machine guns, tanks and sharp bayonets,” one of them pointed at his brother, who was home for the summer from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
The connection between these unrelated events isn’t simply their close chronology. Smith declines to spell out what it is, but the reality of black-on-black violence — the image of the Dominican Dandy bloodying the head of his African American baseball hero, the spectacle of looters running amok outside his father’s motel — seems to have startled his younger self into a precocious awareness of adult failure. Or do I simply mean adulthood? The view, after all, is compassionate and ever-alert to the broader injustices of racism, oppression and institutional brutality bearing down on these divergent situations.
To fill in the story of Marichal and Roseboro, Smith subtly transforms himself on a bare, dimly lit stage into each man by altering his accent and rearranging his body language. But his focus is always in flux as he surveys the complicated, ostensibly mature world with the same bug-eyed astonishment of that boy in Crenshaw looking at grown men attack each other at home plate. The swirl includes the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr., the Jim Crow South, his parents, Catholic school education, the breakup of his marriage and his guilt over the effect of this on his daughter.
The thread grows tenuous. The mix of subjects is diffuse, and the most intensely private aspects of the work seem out of place with the more public-minded concerns. Smith, who’s collaborating again with sound and video designer Marc Anthony Thompson (the two deservedly won Obie awards for “A Huey P. Newton Story”), finds his through-line in the theme of forgiveness, a gift that Roseboro offers years later to Marichal. But the digressions, although in keeping with the wayward narrative tradition of Spalding Gray (who’s invoked in the piece), steal focus from the main interest of the title characters.
Still, there’s something incredibly moving about Smith’s attempt at disentangling the skein of his own history. Emotionally keyed up from start to finish, his voice operating at a higher than usual register, he seems determined to get to the bottom of a haunting childhood mystery.
“Juan and John” is a tribute to men who eventually found a way to make amends to each other, to their fans and more importantly, to themselves. Even the outraged boy inside of Smith, the one who burned Marichal’s baseball card in fury, seems to have finally been appeased.
’Juan and John,’ Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 29. $25. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes