Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo performance of Rodney King, part of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 Second Stage Series, could not be a more timely play. The death of Michael Brown is nearly a month behind us and much anger and confusion is still felt in and outside of Ferguson, Missouri. Twenty-three years apart, parallels to the events following Rodney King’s brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers and the events in Ferguson are apparent.
The sixty-five minute one-person play is written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith. In a career spanning over two decades, Smith has often gravitated toward themes of race. His most acclaimed work to date is the Obie Award-winning solo play titled A Huey P. Newton Story, a work that deals with the co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Smith has also appeared on screen in several films by Spike Lee including Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing. Smith’s new work attempts to dissect Rodney King the man, as well as the event that sparked one of the most deadly riots in US history. Rodney King was rudely thrust into the pages of history after a video recording surfaced showing his brutal beating by the hands of LA police officers following a high-speed car chase. Despite the evidence of police brutality, the officers were acquitted. The court ruling lit a fire keg resulting in a riot that took the life of 53 people and caused an estimated one billion in property damage.
Smith is a poet and a mesmerizing performer; his text bombarded the audience with a collage of quotes, characters, and his own poetic musings. In the talkback following the performance, Smith told us he was inspired to write the play after hearing of the untimely death of Rodney King who drowned in his swimming pool on Father’s Day 2012. Smith explains that the play is “not a performance, but a prayer, it is a conversation with someone who is no longer with us.” This perhaps explains why the biographical play often feels more like a long poem than a drama. The text is often rhythmic and feels inspired in part by slam poetry and hip-hop music. This isn’t to say that the work is not informative. Smith’s research is extensive and he has littered the play with startling (at times odd) details. We learn, for example, that Rodney King had an oversized heart and was born the same year as the LA Watts Race Riots (1965). But this isn’t a play about facts and details. Smith has successfully distilled the frustration and anger of race relations in America into a succinct and moving piece of theatre.
The set is minimal, the stage dominated by a simple white square painted on the floor. The play opens with the sound of splashing water, and with a simple light change, the white square center stage morphs into Rodney King’s backyard swimming pool. We then hear snippets of interviews concerning the 1992 LA Riots overplayed by sound designer Marc Anthony Thompson’s cool but unsettling jazz orchestrations. Jose Lopez’s lighting design is simple but effective. At certain moments red and blue flashing lights remind us of the police who sparked a riot. The flashing lights also come to resemble camera bulbs, representing the media circus Rodney King’s life would become. Smith muses that Rodney King was the “first reality TV star.”
Smith has created a complex portrait of Mr. King, but ultimately returns again and again to the famous and simple speech spoken by Rodney during the LA Riots. “Can we get along?” King asks. Twenty-three years later and that question is just as relevant.
Rodney King continues through Sunday, September 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.