Can we all get along? Rodney King’s story for our times

Actor/playwright Roger Guenveur Smith talks about his show about the man whose videotaped 1991 beating shifted the story of race and police brutality in America

Artists Repertory Theatre is hosting Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play Rodney King, about the “first reality TV star” whose beating by police in 1991 was captured on videotape and led to a public outage that echoes down to the age of cell phone videos and the ongoing national controversy over policing and racial violence. The Artists Rep performances April 21-23 will be Smith’s last onstage before the release on April 28 of Spike Lee’s film version on HBO.

Rodney King is one of several culturally or politically provocative pieces to hit Portland stages since last November’s national elections, heralding an increased activism in the theater.

– Triangle Productions is opening Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall on Thursday, April 20, as part of a “rolling world premiere” at theaters across the country. The author of The Kentucky Cycle and the Lyndon B. Johnson plays All the Way and The Great Society that premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before moving on to acclaim on Broadway began writing Building the Wall “in a white hot fury” last October as the presidential race was tightening up. Lee Williams has written an excellent interview with Shenkkan for The Oregonian.

– Last weekend, partly in response to a wave of anti-immigration policies, Portland Story Theater presented two evenings in its Urban Tellers series of short personal stories by immigrants from Argentina, Somalia, Iran, Indonesia, Mexico, and Denmark, and has plans for a similar program in the fall.

– And PassinArt: A Theatre Company has just concluded its run of Marcus Gardley’s moving Gospel of Lovingkindness, a play that probes the causes of a random murder in the black community and the lives it tears apart. Director Jerry Foster says he’d like to have the show tour in schools.

Smith, the author and performer of Rodney King, agreed to answer a few questions from ArtsWatch via email about his play, his career, and the culture that’s helped shape both. Here’s what he has to say:


Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Bob Hicks: People remember the car chase and the brutal beatings and the famous quote, “Can we all get along?” I’m not sure how many also remember that the police were mostly acquitted by an almost-all-white jury in Simi Valley, or that the whole thing was a key factor in the pressure leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Does Rodney King focus on that series of events, or does it also follow King’s life in the years after?

Roger Guenveur Smith: Rodney King is an intimate meditation on a life lived and lost, revealing a boy and a man and a man in a myth.
 The high speed chase of March 1991 comes to an abrupt halt in June 2012. Along the way there is a beating, and a trial, and a riot, the immense weight of which takes Mr. King to the bottom of his backyard swimming pool.

BH: This was one of the first cases in which citizen videotaping of police action played a significant role. What do you think would have happened if that tape hadn’t existed?

RGS: Had there not been a videotape, Mr. King would have been simply another citizen anonymously abused by the state, and not the human piñata who alternately outraged and fascinated us.

BH: We’re living in a time of high-profile racial violence, by police and also by a seemingly resurgent white-power movement. What’s changed in race relations and police actions in the quarter-century since Rodney King? What’s been learned, what’s been ignored?

RGS: Police brutality, in a variety of forms, can now be downloaded on our smartphones. Our ability to instantaneously monitor and disseminate 
acts of violence has not made the violence less pervasive.
 The so-called “resurgence” of racist ideology has been enabled by a mainstream politics which suggests that Frederick Douglass is still among us, and that a journalist should not shake her head, and that Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

BH: You’ve also done one-man shows on Huey Newton, and Frederick Douglass, who seem like very different figures from Rodney King. Are there similarities? What drew you to his story?

RGS: Rodney King and Huey Newton were both first generation Californians who came
 to prominence as young men in conflict with the police. 
They both met tragic ends at the age of 47.
 Frederick Douglass, in a classic narrative which paved the way for King and Newton’s autobiographies, recounted his violent struggle with his overseer, documenting “how a slave was made a man.”

King’s notoriety, as “the first reality TV star,” was beaten into him, and his subsequent life
 was a largely solo performance, without benefit of an abolitionist movement or a Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
 But like that other King, he delivered one of the great American speeches, pleading that we 
all “get along.”
And his dream, like that other King’s, has been betrayed.
The new American mantra is “I can’t breathe.”

BH: You’ve done another show, “John and Juan,” about the time one baseball star, Juan Marichal, bashed another, John Roseboro, with a bat. As a baseball fan, I remember that vividly. What was central to that story for you?

Rodney King speaking at a Hudson Union Society event at The Payers Club in New York in 2012, shortly before he drowned in his swimming pool. Photo: Justin Hoch for a Hudson Union Society event / Wikimedia Commons

RGS: Juan Marichal and John Roseboro engaged in the most notorious fight in professional baseball history, during which Marichal assaulted Roseboro with his bat.
 They miraculously reconciled and became the best of friends—two black men with essentially the same name.

At Roseboro’s memorial service, the “Dominican Dandy” spoke as an honorary pallbearer, noting that the best thing that had happened in his remarkable, Hall of Fame life, was “John Roseboro forgiving me.”
Not all of us were so quick to forgive. Witnessing the fight on TV as a child whose nickname was “Roger Dodger,” I burned Marichal’s baseball card and chanted, “Burn baby burn.”

The story of Juan and John continues to resonate.
 Rodney King’s brother attended the final Los Angeles performance of the play bearing his late sibling’s name.
His name?
 Juan Marichal King.

BH: What effect, if any, does the sharp turn in national politics since President Trump’s election have on the issues raised in Rodney King? What do you see as crucial in King’s story to current events?

RGS: We conclude the live performance of Rodney King in a Portland which has been fraught with tension and in an Oregon whose peculiar history informs its present political moment.
 Our world tour has been, in many tragic ways, drawn in blood—from Los Angeles, to St. Paul, to London, to Chicago, to Charlotte, to Oakland, and to New York City, where the performance morphed into a town hall meeting and then into a spontaneous street demonstration. A man had been choked to death by the police. It was not a Spike Lee movie.


Roger Guenveur Smith performs Rodney King four times at Artists Repertory Theatre next weekend, April 21-23: at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Ticket information here.


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