Roger Guenveur Smith stands centerstage, a spotlight tracking his every move. In this moment, the sweat's not yet dripping from his face. His voice is dropped low, adopting the swagger of a late-’90s rapper as he says the words, “Fuck Rodney King. In the ass.” The audience is stunned silent.
This is an excerpt from Smith's one-man show, Rodney King. Smith, who's remained one of L.A.'s artistic luminaries for decades, developed this play at his home theater, the Bootleg, shortly after King's death in 2012. Frequent collaborator Spike Lee directed this adaptation for Netflix, which premieres April 28. In it, Smith — with no props or sound effects or costume changes — captures the confusion, passion, intensity, violence and absurdity of the 1992 L.A. riots, as his narrator tells us the real story of the life and times of Rodney King.
“I wanted to keep a distance,” Smith explains. “I had with other pieces really dug into the personal world of my subjects, like Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party — I worked on that for a year, diving into personal resources, meeting the family, comrades, listening to hours of cassette tapes. … [For this] I wanted to maintain the position of an outsider because I think that Rodney King was so misunderstood.”
Much of this performance is composed of questions, as though this narrator is King's interrogator. A “post-mortem,” Smith calls it.
“I couldn't simply stand up there for an hour and say how devastating it was to have lost Rodney King without presenting opposing points of view from the police officers who beat him to the people who disregard him, and even Willie D of Geto Boys, who came out with a rap that year about Rodney King, who did not feel that King lived up to his idea of machismo and who resented that Rodney King would have any kind of sympathetic perspective on his assailants.”
Smith is referencing King's infamous speech to calm the rioters and the on-edge police.
“Rarely do we see the speech, either broadcast or quoted in its entirety, because we're always looking for a kind of shortcut or a sound bite,” Smith says. “He's also typically misquoted. People say, 'Can't we just get along?' He never said 'just.' And that's important. 'Just' is a diminutive.” A sound bite from King — an enigmatic figure whose pain inadvertently launched a rash of violence and who was never really known — isn't enough to convey his importance to a generation who grew up knowing King only from Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.
“We saw him simply as a human piñata, a symbol of police brutality. The L.A. riots are sometimes called the Rodney King riots, which is a form of disrespect as well, because he never rioted. In fact, he stopped the riot. It was his speech that stopped it.”
Yet that speech brought only further pain to King's life.
“Within his own household, he got into conflict with his own children. His kids would say, 'Hey, Dad, can't we get along?' His words were thrown back at him in his own home. One of the great American speeches. He was a man who was not a high school graduate, had suffered brain damage, was obviously severely disappointed at the verdict of the officers who had beaten him, and I think was traumatized by all of the death that occurred essentially in his name — it's also calculated that 66 lives were lost between April and May of 1992,” Smith says. “That's what he took to the microphone with him on that fateful day, all of that, and I think the weight of all of that is the weight of what brought him to the bottom of his swimming pool 20 years later.”
“I wanted to maintain the position of an outsider because I think that Rodney King was so misunderstood.” —Roger Guenveur Smith
The artist recalls opening his laptop on Father's Day in 2012 and learning from some news coverage that King had drowned, just as King's father had. Smith hadn't met King but had talked of him in some of his previous performances. “Not as the butt of a joke,” he insists.
“I saw him as a sign of resilience, and I wanted to know why my grief from his loss was as pronounced as it was. A couple of weeks later, I was onstage at Bootleg and trying to work that out.”
For Smith, the riots are still horrifyingly fresh in his memory; he vividly recalls being pulled from his car and questioned. But the culture of fear in that time was something he'd seen before, in particular during the 1965 Watts riots.
“It was a very disturbing moment for those of us who were in L.A. in 1965. My memories are extraordinarily visceral. My father stood in front of our family business in 1965 so that folks would know it was a black-owned business and wouldn't burn it down. In 1992, Mark Broyard called me when it broke on April 29, and said, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe we're doing this again?'?”
In fact, he could. Smith and his collaborators had done a performance in March 1991, predicting the riots. For it, Broyard himself stood on the corner of 23rd and Crenshaw “giving people proper techniques to protect themselves during the riots.” And Kim Nickerson reported on all the black women who would go missing — yet another tragic prediction that anticipated both the Grim Sleeper case and our current epidemic of missing black women. The plain truth is that none of what happened in 1965 or 1992 or 2014 was all that surprising to the black communities that could and still can feel the tension building.
As Smith goes on, explaining the theater world's reactions to the riots here in Los Angeles, it's even more striking how vital those performances were to the process of exploring, grieving and healing the psychic wounds of a century of violence against the African-American community. Art became therapy as well as justice during the riots. Smith mentions Anna Deavere Smith, whose 1994 play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 provided a kind of catharsis in the theater. Twenty-five years after the riots, Smith finds the story of King resonates just as deeply today.
With the fierce words of a practiced poet, Smith is able to weave pertinent and seemingly inconsequential details into a poignant, heartbreaking and sometimes even funny story of a man whose life was practically erased.
“If you Google 'Rodney King,' there's a couple of images that you'll find that are not of Rodney King, but they're pictures of black men who've somehow been bludgeoned,” Smith says. “Even with the indignity of his experience, he is not even granted the dignity of being identified correctly.”
With Rodney King hitting Netflix, King — whose friends and family called him by his middle name, Glen — may finally reclaim the humanity stripped from him the moment he hit the ground nearly 26 years ago.