Let's get personal for a moment: Traditional journalism in the U.S. still bans the first-person pronouns “I” and “me,” presuming that such cavalier intimacy, tilting into narcissism, compromises objectivity. Among the reasons that the “alternative” press, four to five decades ago, came to traffic in first-person pronouns was to challenge the illusion of objectivity, so that journalism held hands with storytelling and, though not fiction, strove for truths the way fiction does and attempted to be more honest, or less hypocritical, through conspicuously personal accounts.
The alternative press trusted its readers to suss out the integrity and foibles of the narrator, who morphed from “reporter” into a kind of minister, and to read a number of “stories” on the news item being reported, in order to make a determination of truth from an accumulation of sources. Sort of like trying to figure out the lessons of the Bible through the various gospels.
It thereby floated across the Atlantic into a kind of journalism more commonly practiced in Great Britain, with its comparative potpourri of newspapers and news sources, each coming from a clearly defined perspective.
Blogging has brought us closer to that mindset on American shores, with sundry and understandable complaints about accuracy and credibility, even with the ability of blogs to instantaneously correct themselves.
There are two messy question raised by all of this: What is true? And does getting personal in the telling of an account hinder the credibility of that account? Roger Guenveur Smith's latest solo performance, Juan and John, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through May 29, raises just those questions.
Now 56, Smith is of a generation of autobiographical performers (then called “performance artists”) who were coming of age artistically around the same time as the American alternative press, and the parallels are uncanny. Among his peers were John Fleck (currently performing his own solo show, Mad Women, at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz), Holly Hughes, Sandra Tsing Loh, Karen Finley and Tim Miller, who attended Fleck's show on the night I — ahem, this critic — attended. The granddaddy of the genre is Spalding Gray, to whom Smith gives homage in his piece.
It's not surprising that the alternative press should have been so sympathetic to the goals and sensibilities of performance art. Each was brushing away cobwebs from its respective form of expression via a plunge into autobiography.
While traditional plays are fictitious, they nonetheless aim to get to the heart of issues, as does journalism, and so long as the rules of engagement are clear, the primary question generally isn't “Is this true?” but “Is this plausible?”
Until the arrival of “performance art,” it was understood, as in traditional journalism, that the truth emerges through the authentic and equally valid arguments of competing characters — in journalism, they would be “sources.” The journalist was expected to keep his or her snotty nose out of the fray, as was the playwright. After all, the argument still goes, great plays consist of a vision, not an opinion.
Yet there was Tim Miller in, say, his 1999 Glory Box, berating the hypocrisies of a U.S. immigration system that wouldn't renew or even extend the visa of Miller's Australian partner, Alistair McCartney. This was theater as personal confessional and political editorial, a social policy performance/speech, stripping away all illusions to the contrary. When Miller's and Smith's generation of performance artists started dotting their performances with the words “I” and “me,” it was sort of like using the “N” word — all bets were off. It was open aesthetic warfare, drama as opinion, mostly on themes of sexual and ethnic identity.
Roger Guenveur Smith is a kind of minister, an oratorical descendent of Martin Luther King Jr. It's in the rises and falls of his cadence, the way sentences, constructed with almost childlike simplicity, melt into each other through the hypnotic force of crescendo and decrescendo. He dresses something like a cross between a commando in a South American militia and a convict. Add to that impeccable diction and balletic movement, and the creator of A Huey P. Newton Story and Inside the Creole Mafia delivers, in Juan and John, a sprawling, beautiful meditation on the quality of mercy.
“Yo tengo una guerra en mi cabeza y … I have this war inside my head, and …” These are the first lines of the performance. The first word, in Spanish, which he then translates into English, is “I.”
The trigger for this digressive and emotive performance is the 1965 attack in San Francisco's Candlestick Park by the Dominican San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal, who was at bat, on black L.A. Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, with the baseball bat Marichal happened to be holding at home plate. This occurred almost immediately after Roseboro dinged Marichal on the ear with a baseball while flinging it back to pitcher Sandy Koufax. The clubhouses emptied as a brawl ensued around the plate. Roseboro left the field with blood pouring down his face and a welt on his skull the size of an orange. The two men didn't speak for years.
The performance concludes with how Marichal came to be a pallbearer at Roseboro's funeral, but not before spinning south to Los Angeles for the 1965 Watts riots, and then to Smith's (much later) separation from his wife, and his estrangement from and eventual quirky reconciliation with his daughter. Fissures and closures.
Over the stage hang Marc Anthony Thompson's video designs, which are like sculptures. For instance, there's a still shot of a torso in dramatic midpitch wearing No. 27, which has to be Marichal, but his head is cut out, Rodin-like.
And so emerges the historic tension between cultural mythology and autobiography. The sports and ethnic mythology emblemized in that brawl, and the riots in Los Angeles, are so relentlessly powerful, you have to wonder to what extent the autobiography can compete.
Smith offers luminous impersonations of both Roseboro and Marichal, the latter overflowing with pride stemming from cultural indignities yet also amply remorseful for his tantrum.
To what extent is the artist, by filtering the riots and the brawl entirely through the pronoun “I,” making these events smaller and self-focused? That was the accusation made about this newspaper years ago by one journalist, who parodied the entire enterprise as the Me Weekly.
We are all children of the age of confession. And Smith, like Spalding Gray, is a poet, and poets, almost by definition, speak of themselves. Gray's style was droll. He sat at a table in front of a microphone with a glass of water, and he spun yarns that were entirely personal, and through them emerged portraits from Manhattan to Cambodia. He barely moved, physically. Just a man, and his voice, and his ruminations.
Smith, on the other hand, is a dancer and an orator and an emoter. Almost by definition. It's hard to be wry when you're bursting into tears, and that may be his paradox, that the “I” is a little too close to home, and thereby diminishes, ever so slightly, the “we” in a performance that's ravishing nonetheless.
JUAN AND JOHN | Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre | 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through May 29 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org