Academic journal article TheatreForum

Frozen in Time and Fastforwarded: Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Frozen in Time and Fastforwarded: Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King

Article excerpt

Roger Guenveur Smith's work on his one-man, self-written show Rodney King was catalyzed, and has continued to be marked, by rather morbid moments of serendipity. Smith was initially considering creating a piece about Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father and the sole member of the Frank family to survive the Holocaust, when he was blindsided by Rodney King's death at the bottom of his own pool in Rialto, California, on 17 June 2012. According to Smith, "When Rodney King died in June of 2012, I was extraordinarily moved and I wanted to know why. Why did Rodney King matter to me?" (Telephone interview, 15 MAR. 2015; all quotations are from this interview.)

Smith followed his instincts, and by August of that same year, his solo performance Rodney King premiered. A frequent collaborator alongside Spike Lee and musician, songwriter, and sound designer Marc Anthony Thompson-the latter of whom worked with him on the design and genesis of Rodney King-Smith's previous works have included (among many others) Who Killed Bob Marley? and The Huey P. Newton Story, for which both he and Thompson received Obie Awards. He has also been commissioned to create a new piece about the construction of the Panama Canal for the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego (alongside the Centennial of the canal, which was constructed the same year as the city's much-loved Balboa Park), which received its first reading in December 2014. Many of his works have played and/or premiered at his home theatre, the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, and Rodney King is no exception, having played internationally over the past three years, with the content of the piece shifting as new details about King, his death, and the political climate have been released or brought to the forefront of the cultural cortex. Smith's interests in Otto Frank and the Frank family did not have to fall by the wayside, moreover, as a performance of Rodney King in Amsterdam allowed him to visit the Anne Frank house-a trip he'd initially planned as part of his research for the piece on Anne's father.

Besides Amsterdam, Rodney King will also play in London, New Haven, and St. Paul, and has played in Chapel Hill, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, the Off Center Festival at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, and New York. It was there, Smith relates, that the political potential of the piece came to the fore after the 3 December 2014, grand jury decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is believed by many to have been responsible for the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man whose cause of death was determined to be "compression of neck" and "compression of chest" by the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. Of that performance in Brooklyn, Smith shared, "The final evening of the performance, we had what we call an emergency town hall meeting which involved not only a panel of folks but also the entire theater. And then that conversation morphed into a demonstration. We dispersed peaceably, and we made our point. It was an extraordinary moment to be in a play with a full house and a full lobby of people and then to have the discussion actually move into a civic action. That moment was amazing."

In moving the performance outside into the street, the audience mirrored Smith's willingness to stand onstage exposed and vulnerable. Onstage, Smith can only hint at the vulnerability of an individual when faced with the hegemonic violence inherent to the police industrial complex; his clothing-which includes a black short sleeved t-shirt, black pants, and no shoes or socks-offers scant protection [Photo 1]. For the duration of the performance, the audience is given very little in terms of extraneous visuals: only Smith, a corded microphone, and light. His bare feet are planted firmly in position until the closing moments. His speaking pace and the minimal set initially make us wonder when we are going to receive a moment for ourselves, to catch up, to process what is happening. …

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