Roger Guenveur Smith offers an absolutely absorbing examination of Rodney King's life, death, and moment of infamy in his one-man show, playing through Sunday at Penumbra Theatre.
The Los-Angeles-based performer, a veteran of numerous Spike Lee films along with turns at Penumbra and the Guthrie, digs deep into the heart of King and his story. Smith pulls no punches along the way, opening with a verse of Willie D's "Fuck Rodney King," and then using the facts of 1991 (when the beating took place), 1992 (when Los Angeles exploded in riots after the not guilty verdicts for the cops who beat King), and ending in 2012, when King drowned in his swimming pool.
Smith gives us the bio, tracing bits of King's life-to-date and highlighting what happened that summer evening. The intensity builds as Smith details the following year's riots. This becomes just as harrowing, as Smith offers the details of several of the victims. He ends with King's famous "Why Can't We All Get Along" speech, given in its full, halting, and emotional self.
Give plenty of credit to both Smith the writer and Smith the performer. His verbal poetry builds a story and experience larger and deeper than just a famous case of police brutality. The performer then takes that and intensifies it to the point where each baton stroke is felt in the heart and soul.
Some of the side trips humanize King, making him more than just another beating victim, and include looks into the man's earlier life (he liked fishing and surfing) and his struggles to understand what was being done in his name in 1992.
It all comes down to King's speech. Like the rest of the show, Smith doesn't varnish this moment with sentimentality. While most of the show is performed on a white rectangle in the center of the stage, this moment comes on an almost dark stage, with only the performer's head visible.
With our attention entirely focused, Smith gives us the text of the speech. He plays it beautifully as he becomes a conduit for the brutally honest, off-the-cuff words. No number of made-for-TV movies, inside reports, or tell-all books could possibly offer us as much truth as these few minutes onstage.
IF YOU GO:
Through October 11
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit online.