Provocative Theater: The Colors of "Rodney King"

Roger Guenveur Smith, creator and performer of Rodney King now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, unfolds the narrative of King’s life, traveling seamlessly back and forth in time in a circular repetition that cycles through King’s childhood, his progressive alcoholism, and his police beating—all serving in counterpoint to the events of the 1992 riots. Throughout, Smith delivers what is astonishingly an improvised dialogue between an omniscient narrator and Rodney King, using prose that rhymes and breaks between syllables. In the talkback after the play, Smith compared the play’s language to a kind of verbal jazz (he mentioned how Branford Marsalis can play the same jazz classic in five different, new styles).

To accompany the song of language, Smith’s slow and fluid dance of arms, legs, and torso reenact the scenes of King’s life: his father teaching him how to cast a fishing line; surfing in the Pacific Ocean; Officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind beating King incessantly, each wallop an echo of his own father beating him with an electrical cord; King pushing a mop as a janitor “when he was Glenn, Rodney King hadn’t been invented then.” The cadence and punctuated rhyme couples with Smith’s mesmerizing motion, invoking the human being that was Rodney King. (The remarkable sound design is by Mark Anthony Thompson.)

Smith has traveled these roads before, commenting on race in America with plays including Inside the Creole Mafia (with collaborator Mark Broyard) and the Obie Award winning A Huey P. Newton Story. In Rodney King Smith has outdone himself, portraying the man he refers to as “the first reality TV star.” Smith, whose imposing presence is an emotional and physical powerhouse, describes Rodney King as a prayer—an appropriate analogy for theater that eulogizes not only King but several of the fallen bodies that followed his beating by police in 1991 and the consequent Los Angeles riots in 1992.

Photo by Patti McGuire

Photo by Patti McGuire

A minimalist set comprised of a translucent white floor measuring approximately twenty by twenty feet and a microphone reinforces the prayer analogy. The space itself is immaculate, timeless—a non-setting in which King’s white ground zero contrasts with Smith clad in cotton black: The division between black and white, between the powerless body and the batons that bludgeoned it.

As the play culminates and King’s lawyers’ “gag order” is lifted so King can speak to Angelenos during the riots, Smith steps backward upstage, the camera count-down from five to one to “action,” when King finally gives an unscripted plea on TV to the rioters—improvised like the play itself. Lighting designer Jose Lopez dims the stage with each step back until Smith and the translucent white floor blend together in shadow, obliterating the lines between black and white just as King says, “I’m neutral,” pleading to stop the rioting by repeating, “Let’s work it out.”

Smith presents King’s humanity in all of its colors, not a hero, not a media pawn, just a man whose life brings into focus the racial divides that continue to plague us

Rodney King is playing thru October 6, 2013. For Tickets and times click here.