Roger Guenveur Smith searches inward for real Rodney King

"Rodney King," a solo show by Roger Guenveur Smith, continues at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Like Walt Whitman, Roger Guenveur Smith contains multitudes. In various past one-man shows he has portrayed Huey P. Newton, baseball brawling immortals Juan Marichal and John Roseboro and dozens of others, while probing the great American themes of identity, individuality, ethnicity, class and power.

His latest solo endeavor, “Rodney King,” with an original sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson and lighting by Jose Lopez, is playing through Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City as part of RADAR L.A., International Festival of Contemporary Theater. Charles McNulty, The Times’ theater critic, praised the show, calling Smith “the jazz master of the form, riffing as freely and confidently as Sonny Rollins on sax.”

“Smith doesn’t so much set out to define King as demonstrate the way in which he was overwhelmed by other people’s definitions — verbally assaulted in as relentless a manner as he was physically attacked by the police on that fateful night of March 3, 1991,” McNulty writes. “Smith restores to King what King himself was always trying to wrestle back from the media before his sad death ... his simple humanity.”


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Culture Monster recently spoke with the actor about the show.

By using found texts and hip-hop beats in this show you create a different poetic language and cadence. You wanted to break open the cliches of language and of representation that entrapped King and limit our understanding of him. So it seems this show is as much about language as about anything else.

Absolutely. It’s about the reclamation of language, working against cliche. No, [the night he was beaten by the L.A.P.D.] he wasn’t playing N.W.A. in the car, “... tha Police,” he was playing De La Soul, the most harmless hippie hip-hop that there was. And, no, he was not of the ghetto, he was of Altadena. He was a country guy, as it were, he loved fishing, he loved swimming, he eventually loved skiing and surfing. He was a quintessential Californian. And he was not what the police made him out to be, and he was not what we tried to make him out to be. And in his great speech he says, “I’m not what they’re picking me out to be.” Not making me out to be, “I’m not what they’re picking me out to be.”

As in, “picked out of a police lineup.”

Exactly. And if you listen closely to that speech, what’s not said or what’s mis-said, is just as important as what’s said. Because in the speech he wants to say, “Let’s try to be the change that we imagine.” But he never gets to it. He says, “I’m not a racist,” but he never gets to the word “racist.” He says, “I’m neutral.” He says, “I love everybody.” He says, “I love people of color.” And he meant to go on and say he loved white people, too, but he never got to that. He’s a man who’s drunk, he’s brain-damaged, he’s just had the most disappointing moment of his life: these cats who’ve beat him within an inch of his life are deemed not guilty.

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But he rejected reading a scripted speech when he went before the cameras while the riot was going on.


He tosses it. He speaks from his heart. It’s an improvised performance. He speaks from his “abnormally enlarged heart,” which was revealed in the autopsy. It seemed to be appropriate that that was the only major abnormality in Rodney King. Just a normal middle-age black man with a goatee and a receding hairline!

So where were you on 3/3/91 and 4/29/92?

I was here in Los Angeles, and we immediately did a piece called “Kaos TV” at [independent filmmaker] Ben Caldwell’s studio in Leimert Park, Kaos Network. I played the host and my partner from the Creole Mafia, Mark Broyard, played kind of a street-corner correspondent who was giving people proper cover-up techniques to deal with the LAPD. I had a big map behind me and I was pointing to all kinds of imagined conflagrations all over the city. And in a sense we predicted what was to happen on 4/29/92, a year before it happened.

So ’65 and ’92 was a bookend of my childhood and young adulthood in L.A.: two riots, which I witnessed first-hand. Sixty-five, that was the year that Rodney was born, that was the year that Watts blew up, that was the year that Simon Rodia died, that was the year that Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro upside the head with a baseball bat, that was the year that Bill Cosby won an Emmy for “I Spy,” the first Negro to win an Emmy.

In the show you connect these dots about King’s life, which were kind of hiding in plain sight -- the connection with Reginald Denny, for example.

Oh, that’s mind-blowing, that he actually knew Reginald Denny. He reveals it in his autobiography, that he and Denny had met at a construction site one night, and Denny had dropped off a load of gravel. [King] was a flag guy on the site, and they had kicked it for a minute and had a great conversation. He ran into George Holliday [the man who shot the video of King’s beating] at a filling station one night. And Holliday goes up to him and says, “I don’t know if you know who I am.” King says, “Yeah, I do, you’re the guy who saved my life.” But that’s an L.A. encounter, at a filling station.


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So here we are in 2013 and you’re trying to revisit this.

Yeah, but you know what? It’s not an exercise in nostalgia. I always try to speak to the present moment. And this is something with which Rodney King lived for 20-some-odd years. We thought that he was on his ascendance: he’d published his autobiography, done a great interview with Patt Morrison at the L.A. book fair; made wonderful appearances at [bookstores] where he was very warmly received. And then, boom, last Father’s Day you open up the laptop and, “Rodney King found dead at the bottom of a Rialto pool.” And I think that we all carry our demons with us. I think we’re all looking into that swimming pool.

In the show at one point you invoke the image of Moby Dick. There’s an implication that over time we’ve reduced Rodney King from a complex human being to a symbol.

He’s become a symbol, and there’s this maniacal pursuit of him. I think there’s a profound struggle in the country to negotiate the roots of our American dilemma. And it becomes increasingly more difficult to do that as we become engrossed with meaningless media hype. Why should it, for example, take a Quentin Tarantino movie to kick-start the conversation about American slavery, when American slavery should be part and parcel of our educational process, and not just in African studies programs but in all programs of inquiry into the American experience? Why should it take the killing of Oscar Grant, and the subsequent brilliant film of his killing entitled “Fruitvale Station,” to get us to talk about the vulnerability of urban youth of color?

Because we look to artists to talk about what politicians and the rest of us don’t want to talk about.

There’s your answer. And that’s why art continues to be so crucial, and yet continues to be marginalized in our society.



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