The videotaped beating of Rodney King by a gang of white police officers in 1991 reverberates to this day, both in continued instances of police brutality and the rise of dramatic video showing those moments. Performer Roger Guenveur Smith was in Los Angeles at the time, and worked on a piece called KAOS TV in the immediate aftermath.
“When I opened my laptop on Father’s Day 2012 and got the news that we had lost Rodney King, I was moved, and I wanted to know why Rodney King mattered to me. I had referenced him in my work over the course of many years, and there was a sense of loss there that I wanted to explore,” Smith says. “I thought it would be a memorial meditation on Rodney King, but it continued to expand in unexpected ways. It spoke not just on the perennial level that I intended, but the broader national level. I think that national level has been compounded by the tragedy of violence that, unfortunately, we continue to negotiate.”
Smith started working on the piece at his home base, the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles. Over the past few years, Rodney King has played in spaces across the country and around the world. It arrives for a two-week run Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
The one-man show runs the gamut of the Rodney King experience, from Willie D’s “Fuck Rodney King” to the man’s famous “Can’t we all get along?” speech in the wake of the rioting that erupted after King’s attackers were largely acquitted.
“I think the experience of Rodney King and the experience of the city at large are most important. I wanted to leave myself out of the equation in connection to the piece,” Smith says. “I think that Rodney King’s speech that was delivered in 1992 was one of the great American speeches. It is rarely heard in its entirety, and I thought it was essential that I do that piece.”
The actor and writer has ties to the Twin Cities. “My first gig in the theater full time was with the Guthrie company,” he says. He also brought his Inside the Creole Mafia to Penumbra in 1995, and has also performed in a number of Spike Lee films, who also directed the film version of Smith’s one-man show, A Huey P. Newton Story.
“It is a common man who was placed in an extraordinary circumstance. It is a man who did not graduate high school and who was developmentally disabled. After the beating, there was brain damage. He was supremely disappointed by the verdict, but he was able to pull off one of the great American speeches. He stopped a riot. The other King, as great of a speaker he was, he could not stop a riot,” Smith says.
The beating also presaged how technology would soon change lives. “I called Rodney King the first reality TV star. His degradation was rewound and freeze framed. It was a kind of notoriety that he couldn’t outlive, and I think that took him to the bottom of the swimming pool in 2012. Here we are in the world of 2015 and everybody has a camera in their phone. We see this kind of violence and degradation with extraordinary regularity. Have we have become desensitized to it, or are we ore accurately informed? What of those people who are the victims? Do they become re-victimized or dragged into the public eye because of our ability to tune into the event with the touch of a button?” Smith asks.
Rodney King’s beating still reverberates to this day. “I think the moment that we have been engaged in has informed the piece on its own. I don’t have to draw specific parallels to specific incidents, which have been documented in the last couple of years. That is a given. They give Rodney King’s story a contemporary resonance. We are not looking at the story in this play with a kind of biographical nostalgia. I never like to do that in my pieces. I like to speak to the present,” Smith says.
IF YOU GO:
Thursday through October 11
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit online.