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Friday, December 5, 2014

Roger Guenveur Smith brings "Rodney King" to BRIC

Portraits of Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King
(all photos by Patti McGuir)

When I reserved my ticket to review Rodney King--Roger Guenveur Smith's solo performance in its new run at BRIC House--I had no way to know that the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions would land a one-two punch and knock the breath out of least, people of conscience. And send the bewildered and outraged into the streets. And put some of us suddenly at odds with friends whose hearts and minds we thought we knew.

The show, which first opened in Los Angeles in 2012 and had its New York premiere at the 2013 Under The Radar Festival, lasts just one hour. Trust me, you do not have the fortitude for anything more, for Smith lands blows of his own in this panoramic view of the interlocked tragedies of one Black man and one nation.

On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, a construction worker, was driving with two drinking buddies on a Los Angeles freeway. LAPD cops spotted his speeding white Hyundai and chased it for mile after mile, with more patrol cars and a helicopter joining the pursuit. King's car was eventually trapped on a residential street and all three men ordered out and brutalized by a swarm of cops. King suffered extensive injuries, including brain damage. Despite videotaped evidence of excessive force, a Simi Valley jury--before whom King was never allowed to testify--acquitted his assailants, leading to massive riots throughout LA and incidents of violent retribution.

Rodney King opens with a slurry stew of sounds, designed by Smith's longtime collaborator, Mark Anthony Thompson, from televised news crossed with a musical loop of famous words from a speech he delivered to tamp the unrest: "Can't we all get along?" It becomes an earworm you can't will away. The audience, anticipating Smith, listens and listens as the space, darkened except for a corded microphone lying on the floor inside a large white square of light, remains empty. That white light gradually blooms into the aqua of a swimming pool, like the pool where King, son of an alcoholic who drowned in a bathtub, met his own accidental end.

"Fuck you, Rodney King! You're a goddamn sellout!"

And it begins. Not a monologue so much as a votive offering of Smith's entire body--through fluid, powerful movement, through voice--to a heady, seamless, rhythmic poetry of storytelling with never a wasted gesture or moment.

"You were viral before viral was viral," Smith says, addressing his subject. "Everyone recording you and fastforwarding you." King's ordeal became "the first reality tv show." Smith imagines King watching the televised infernos ("This is for you, Rodney King!"), knocking back brandy to medicate the pain of witness, pulling on a non-threatening Cosby/Huxtable sweater to make a speech to help restore that strange state of "calm" the authorities tell us to respond with when insane things are done to us.

It is a tale tailor-made for a nation obsessed with media and multimedia. But, aside from Thompson's sonic bracketing, Smith has chosen simplicity of form to house complexities and contrasts, letting the supple partnership of voice and body be his channel. Every texture of Smith's narrative is set out in vivid tones, from King's giddy pleasure of surfing a wave to the explosive crack of a baton on facial bones. Smith's words and phrases tumble, pause, swirl, recede, loop around and reappear. Within the confines of his square of light, he conjures energies, impressions, facts, memories.

Smith, aptly, calls his method "jazz acting, where there's a head and a riff, and you come back to the head." (In the post-show Q&A, he also answered an admiring dancer's question by citing his intensive study of dance "in the Cornelius School. Don Cornelius. Every Saturday.") This is an important performance for this very moment--and beyond--but your chances to see it now are few. Rodney King continues only through Sunday on the following schedule: tonight at 7:30pm, Saturday at 7:30pm and 9:30pm, and Sunday at 4:30pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Smith greets his audience
after performing Rodney King at BRIC.
The actor also sat for a Q&A with writer Nelson George.
(photo by Eva Yaa Asantewaa)
Roger Guenveur Smith adapted his Obie Award-winning solo performance of A Huey P. Newton Story into a Peabody Award-winning telefilm. His history-driven work also includes Frederick Douglass NowWho Killed Bob Marley?Juan And JohnChristopher Columbus 1992The Watts Towers ProjectIn Honor of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and, with Mark Broyard, the award-winning Inside The Creole Mafia. For Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, Smith created the stuttering hero Smiley. His astonishing range of film credits also includes Malcolm XHe Got GameGet On The BusEve's BayouAll About The BenjaminsHamletDeep Cover and American Gangster, for which he was nominated for the Screen Actors' Guild Award. He starred in the HBO series K StreetOz, and Unchained Memories: Readings From The Slave Narratives.
BRIC House
647 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

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