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Contradictions of ‘Huey Newton’s’ Life

As the title suggests, “A Huey P. Newton Story” at the Actors’ Gang makes no claim to being the definitive portrait of the late Black Panthers co-founder.

How could it? Newton’s life was a turbulent swirl of contradictions--street fighter, poet, political tactician, cocaine addict, accused murderer and self-taught scholar. He was equally at home quoting Shakespeare or busting heads.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s meticulously researched solo performance illuminates these diverse facets with laser-like precision, the only common thread being Newton’s defiance of the expectations fostered by his own myth.

When we first meet him circa 1966, with his faltering, whiny voice and uncontrollable nervous twitching, Newton seems anything but the revolutionary firebrand who shook the Establishment. Yet as he outlines his movement’s declaration of principles, Smith’s whole bearing shifts into forceful high gear; gathering hypnotic momentum, his speech becomes eloquently charged with visionary ideals.

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Smith makes no attempt to judge his subject, or even to establish Newton’s guilt or innocence in the various crimes of which he was accused. Although the work is politically charged, its dramatic focus is on the personal consequences of the revolutionary life--Newton ends up a desperately unhappy recluse, devastated by his inability to live up to his public image.

Accompanying live music and sound montages by Marc Anthony Thompson are an integral part of the drama and help offset the inherently static quality of the single-performer format.

But there’s room for fine-tuning in this still-evolving work in progress. Passages that recycle the same territory call out for judicious editing, especially the protracted self-pitying finale. Newton’s tragedy was that he outlasted his own impact--it is hoped, in its final form, this piece won’t suffer the same fate.

* “A Huey P. Newton Story,” Actors’ Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 12. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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