The man in the wicker chair glowers at the camera. He wears a black beret on his head and he's dressed for battle. A spear and rifle complete the image of this self-proclaimed "Supreme Servant of the People." The stone-faced 24-year-old appears sure of his declared mission: to rid society of racism and unchecked capitalism while assuring that freedom, justice, and equality are not denied to his African-American constituency.
Huey P. Newton cut a stark image, but the man behind the poster is blurrier. Witness Roger Guenveur Smith as he applies his acting chops to this persona in A Huey P. Newton Story. One moment he shies from an interrogator's gaze, cigarette smoke curling around his head; the next he thrusts himself into the spotlight as the militant founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; and finally he transcends both poles, proving as slippery as the political ideology that defined, even vexed, his troubled life. Swinging wildly from antsy provocateur to moody mumbler, Smith slam dances to Bob Dylan (or "Zimmerman," he reminds us), dodging and weaving like the prizefighter Newton longed to be. It's a night on the town with a Zen-spouting revolutionary.
Some artists channel their subjects, but Smith comes as close as metaphysically possible to returning Newton to the earthly plane. Presented this weekend as part of the Walker Art Center's annual Out There series at the Southern Theater, the one-man work is a potent mixture of Newton's own words and composer Marc Anthony Thompson's rich sound score. A success off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater, Smith's piece was originally performed for audiences in Oakland and San Francisco, the cities where Newton first engaged the public with Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale in 1966.
The success of the work hinges on Smith's canny ability to portray Newton by refusing to judge him on any terms but his own. "The discipline of the piece is Huey on Huey," the performer explains by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "How he can speak for himself about himself."
Smith, an accomplished film and television actor who got his first paying gig as a member of the Guthrie Theater's repertory company and regularly appears in Spike Lee joints, recognizes that the individual not only shapes his myth, but is shaped by it in turn. In this vein, Newton became overwhelmed with political expectations he was forced to embrace or enjoin. So what to make of this visionary radical who claimed he taught himself to read using only Plato's Republic, who inspired shouts of "Free Huey!" when charged with the murder of a white Oakland police officer, who exiled himself in Cuba for three years after being accused of murdering a prostitute, who earned a Ph.D. in social philosophy, and who, a decade ago, was himself murdered in front of a crack house?
Newton and Seale's Black Panthers emerged during one of the country's most active periods of civil-rights advances and political uprising. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X heightened the public awareness of African-American struggle, while at the same time the Vietnam War inspired protest from the poorest street corner to the Ivy League campus. As the Panthers issued their "Ten Point Program," a manifesto calling for full employment, decent housing, equal education, free health care, and the immediate redress of past and current injustices experienced by oppressed peoples, Newton, the scrappy poet and philosopher, found himself a target of the FBI.
"That's what we want onstage, we want contradiction and conflict. Huey was--is--a character who is amenable to the stage," explains Smith, who spent months plowing through old manuscripts, videos, audiotapes, even Newton's wardrobe and record collections at the Huey P. Newton Foundation in San Francisco. "Plus he was not a great public speaker. It was a challenge: How do you make it interesting?" Smith allows his mellow tone to slip into Newton's, reed-thin and filled with anxious pauses. "This is a man with a high-pitch voice, he stammered a lot, he was shy in front of crowds. When he was released from prison in 1970 he went on a college-speaking tour, and he was not the poster come to life. He was into philosophical reason, not simplistic rabble-rousing. He was a complex individual, personally and politically. But in this arena he was surrounded by the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin. The era was full of dynamic personalities."
Smith warms to his subject, and he begins to expound on Newton's unique relationship to the leadership ideal, a commentary appropriate to the coming presidential election hype. "He was questioning its essence. We take for granted the brilliance of leadership in our society. If someone is running for president, we assume they have a heightened agenda to which the vox populi must eventually subscribe." Newton, Smith contends, saw through the illusion of the perfect leader, recognizing that human beings can never be infallible, no matter what trust is placed in them. Smith elaborates, "He was the head of a highly disciplined organization, but he lost his personal discipline. Huey's demise came perhaps because he wanted to embrace his own human frailty. That's what one embraces when they embrace the crack pipe.