{mosimage}Long a fan of the extensive and impressive body of work of Roger Guenveur Smith, I decided that he was a genius when I saw him breathe through a cigarette while doing one-armed pushups in the Spike Lee–directed A Huey P. Newton Story, the film version of Smith’s Obie Award–winning solo performance off-Broadway. It’s startling to recognize an improvised gesture that so embodies everything that was virulently contradictory in Huey Newton, but Smith accomplished this in such a fashion that it stopped the show for me.

Smith, of course, has had a distinguished career as an actor in other roles, working with Lee in six films including Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing, and with Steven Soderbergh on K Street, the HBO show that no one seemed to have watched but me. And I cannot praise enough Inside the Creole Mafia — the Katrina edition, with co-writer and actor Mark Broyard. But nothing Smith has done resonates with me like those cigarette pushups. He got at what was sinister and ultimately destructive in Huey’s personality; he wills us to see Huey’s life as Shakespearean tragedy.

Smith grew up in Los Angeles and came of age in the ’70s during a time that saw the promise of the civil rights movement and the intoxication of black militancy segue into ghetto gangsterism and bourgeois isolation. His material subverts simple answers; his work speaks to contradictions that discomfort more than they reassure.

Recently Smith came to UCLA to address my class on race, media and ethnicity, and he rocked the house. He performed a scene from his solo show on Frederick Douglass. I watched as some of UCLA’s most famous athletes — including players from the school’s NCAA Final Four basketball team — enthusiastically clustered around Smith at the end without a hint of jaded privilege or youthful uninterest, undaunted by his challenging work. He mesmerized us all with flowing imagery that spoke of human dignity and savagery through a lens of racial conflict. His latest solo show, Who Killed Bob Marley?, just ended its run at the Bootleg Theater, but we’ll be seeing a lot more from him soon.

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