A Huey P. Newton Story

Article excerpt

Roger Guenveur Smith. Joseph Papp Public Theatre, New York City, Feb-Mar. 1997.

The image forever burned into my psyche of Huey P. Newton in the late 1960s is that famous life-sized poster with him sitting poised in a wicker chair with a spear in one hand and a gun in the other. Those piercing eyes, fearless; a warrior committed to the Black liberation struggle and willing to die for his convictions. In 1967 I was twelve years old, and I can remember rushing home from school during the eight weeks of the Huey P. Newton murder trial to catch the local news broadcast of hundreds of demonstrators marching in front of the Alameda County Courthouse chanting, "Free Huey, Free Huey, Free Huey...." His defiance against authority made an indelible impression on the minds of young Black boys living in the ghettos of South Central Los Angeles, constantly confronted with racism and police brutality. That was the Huey P. Newton of my youth, the mythological Newton--he is the one I chose to embrace in the recesses of my memory, not Huey P. Newton the "crack head," fatally shot in August 1989 while trying to "cop a rock" to ease his pain.

Roger Guenveur Smith, who directed, created, wrote, and performed A Huey P. Newton Story at The Joseph Papp Public Theatre, has created a complex and compelling representation of a man that none of us ever knew. Despite what we've read about him and despite what we think we may know about him, Huey P. Newton was so much more complex than our myths about him and that image on the poster--gun in one hand, spear in the other: "POWER TO THE PEOPLE!" In his performance Roger Smith captures the spirit of Huey P. Newton the boy, the adolescent, the man.

The audience is drawn into Smith's performance as he captures the ethos of this shy, soft-spoken, chain-smoking revolutionary who is not comfortable with his public image as the gun-toting Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense: "I'm nervous around guns. I hate all them guns clicking around my head.... We're forced to carry guns to defend ourselves against the police ...."

The Huey P. Newton Roger Smith portrays is filled with contradictions and unanswered questions. Despite growing up illiterate, Newton could recite classical poetry and quote whole passages from Shakespeare. He learned to do this not by reading but by listening to recordings of classical works performed by great actors like Vincent Price. Huey's older brother used money as an incentive to induce him to read. Although Huey welcomed his brother's offer, he used his new found knowledge to become a better burglar. Yet, despite his adolescent criminal behavior, Newton remained close to his family, referring to his father with affection as "a benevolent tyrant," because he was a strict disciplinarian.

Roger Smith, immersed in the spirit of Huey P. Newton, has Newton recall his father breaking a long-time friendship because the friend, who was a policeman, recently hired, had orders that he could only arrest Black people. His father never spoke to the man after that conversation. Newton never forgot the incident, which for him became a metaphor for the fact that a Black man should never oppress another Black man. In fact, it could be argued that the incident was a turning point in redirecting Newton's interest from petty theft and burglary to working for social justice in the Black community.

Roger Smith's portrayal of Newton's tormented psyche is performed in the style of a ritualistic dance of death, reaching from the sublime to the grotesque of Newton's inner spirit. …