Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King Has a Wonderful Lesson—If We'll Only Listen

Though the phrase “going viral” didn't yet possess cultural cachet, Rodney King's odyssey certainly served as a template. From the blurry hand-held video that captured his police encounter (read: beat-down) on March 3, 1991, to the subsequent aquittal of four of those officers and the conflagration that swept across Los Angeles in its wake, his personal became everybody's public.

And “odyssey” is a perfect fit for King's journey from anonymity to notoriety, at least for Roger Guenveur Smith, an impossibly talented Los Angeles-based writer, director and actor bringing his one-man show to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Off Center Festival next week.

“The abuse of power is not solely an American problem,” Smith says. “It's a universal problem. And I think the saga of Rodney King is not unlike the most classic sagas that have informed world literature. His story has classical dimensions, such as a common man thrust into a most uncommon situation. I don't think you could write anything more Biblical.”

But Rodney King—as with many of the jazz-infused, improv-based works Smith has done, including those on Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton and the infamous baseball smack-down of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro by Giants pitcher Juan Marichal—doesn't lionize King, who died in 2012 after drowning in a swimming pool. Smith hopes audiences realize that “Rodney King was not anything bigger or smaller than a man, a man with some moments of glory and some moments of degradation.”

Smith chose to write about King out of “an emotional curiosity of why I felt so moved after hearing of his passing and why Rodney King would matter potentially to an audience.” The show went up only two months after King's death. But since then, a series of encounters, from Kelly Thomas to Eric Garner, has made it keenly relevant.

“It just makes a lot of sense to be doing at this particular time,” Smith says. “I envisioned it as a memorial prayer and a postmortem interview, which it is, but it continues to resonate in new and effective ways.”

Unlike his notable past efforts, Smith opted to create the show from the outside in. Rather than interview people who knew King, he approached it as an outsider, more reportorial, poring over interviews with King and things written or filmed about him, from video of interviews to comment threads beneath stories, which supplied ample anti-King rhetoric.

“This is not a kind of a worshiping [or] whitewashing of Rodney King,” he says. “I kick it off with a rap from Willie D of the Geto Boys that says, 'Fuck Rodney King' for his lack of machismo. Throughout the piece, there are voices and images that do not necessarily paint him the most flattering way. He had struggles with sobriety and domestic violence that plagued him throughout his adult life, and that's a part of the story.”

But though his effort at humanizing someone whom many people dismiss as a punch line or as one of Dr. Drew's pathetic cases on Celebrity Rehab, Smith discovered something: that it's just as important now as it was in 1992 to listen to what King said.

And that was, of course, the oft-misquoted “Can we all get along,” right?

No, Smith says. There was far more poetry and profundity in King's words, something that has been lost on most. That's why he closes each performance with the entire speech King delivered in the midst of the April 1992 riots. “That has been reduced to one clip,” Smith says. “But he didn't say the word just. That's diminutive. He actually answers the question. Yes, we can get along. And that's important.

“I think it is one of the great American speeches. It was delivered under great duress. He had just sat through a trial, and he had just driven through the middle of people looting and burning and dying in his name, and he was handed a four-page typewritten speech given to him by his lawyers, the same lawyers who did not let him testify during the trial. And of course he was not trained to be a public speaker; he wasn't even a high school graduate, and he was dyslexic. Instead, he tossed the speech and decided to speak from his heart. He stopped the riot, and he very well could have said, 'Burn it down.'”

Smith believes that, perhaps unwittingly, King tapped into the only viable solution against violence on all levels.

“I think a great crisis in America has been—and continues to be—the violent solution to conflict,” he says. “We seem to be enamored of that. It's a history that has been established but is frequently denied, and because of that, we continue to commit the same mistakes. But it's not just an American problem. The abuse of power knows no countries, knows no boundaries, knows no borders.

“But there is hope here, and the hope is that we are capable of listening to Rodney King and what he left for us, which is a tremendous lesson. If we want to listen.”

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