The day after a white supremacist killed nine black people in a Charleston, S.C., church, an actor with Charleston roots brought home the violence facing black Americans for a mostly white audience up north, tossing around the “n” word and raising uncomfortable questions about how we view victims.
The actor, Roger Guenveur Smith (pictured), embodied Rodney King, in a one-man show that opened Thursday night at Long Wharf Theatre as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The show runs through the weekend.
While playing multiple roles, Smith narrates King’s videotaped brutal beating by Los Angeles police in 1991, King’s psychological decline after the officers’ acquittal, his subsequent rounds on the reality TV circuit, and his death at the bottom of his own pool in 2012.
“Before you know it, Rodney, you’ve gone viral before viral was viral. Before you know it, Rodney, you’ve become the first reality TV star,” Smith says in his performance, as the unidentified narrator whose voice weaves the story together.
Throughout the narration, Smith undulates his limbs and sways gently on stage, like he’s doing it wasted – or underwater.
Smith as Officer Laurence Powell strikes King’s head with an invisible baton, one time, two times, three times, skipping several numbers on the way to 56. Smith as King spews geysers of blood, sending drops and gobs of spit in arcs onto the stage.
I thought Smith was white at first, as I watched from way up in the nosebleed section of the theater. I hadn’t done my research beforehand. I hadn’t yet scrolled through his long list of appearances in classic black movies that could have served as a tip-off.
At first, I thought: What does it mean for a white actor to utter the words “Fuck Rodney King in the ass” for a white audience in a divided city like New Haven, despite his intent? It’s a question that applies no matter Smith’s race: What does it mean for a black or mixed race actor?
The N Word
After the performance, I asked Smith about his decision to use the word “nigger” so many times, especially for this audience.
“We need to hear it,” he said, which is why he deployed it in a variety of contexts in his play.
An officer beating King told him, “Run, nigger!” An “Afrocentric, homophobic rapper” said he was “tired of these good niggers” like King who Uncle Tom for white folks.
The difference between the two uses, according to Smith? The first is in its “original, appropriate context.”
Following the example of the late comedian Richard Pryor, “my peers and I excised the word from our vocabularies. Another generation came and re-appropriated the word,” Smith said. “It’s a necessary debate.”
Smith leans into uncomfortable truths, instead of shying away. He acknowledges King’s humanity by referencing his flaws – his alcoholism, his dyslexia, his past crimes.
Those flaws made King the perfect reality TV star.
Today, the media scrutinizes black male victims like they’re looking for replacements. Was he high? Whom did he rob? Tell us, what was his criminal history? (The same media largely ignores black cis and trans female victims.)
Smith narrates while King gulps brown liquor alone, watching broadcasts of others murdered year after year. He portrays a King who feels helpless, just as many of us do. King’s lawyers hadn’t even let him speak at the trial of the officers who beat him. King received $3.8 million in a civil settlement along with years of media scrutiny and public mockery.
King gets to speak just a short paragraph in Smith’s monologue, with a tiny, high voice unlike King’s actual deep, resonant one.
“People, I just want to say: Can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?” he says, repeating a public plea he made in 1992 during a series of LA riots that followed the exoneration of his killers. “I’m neutral. I’m not what they’re making me out to be.”
King said something similar in an interview with talk show host Oprah months before his death: “I’m not the person who they’ve portrayed me to be over the years. If I walk around bitter and mad, I’m doing the same thing they did to me and that’s not the way the generations are supposed to leave the next generation.”
King told Oprah he didn’t drink much anymore and that he “needed to sober out and take a break.”
King’s father was an alcoholic who drowned drunk in his bathtub, making King a “second-generation drowning victim,” Smith said – a tragedy so perfectly circular that it’s “Shakespearean” or “Biblical.”
In the post-show discussion, he referred to his play “not so much a performance but as a prayer, a collective cross which we all must bear. It’s called history.” Smith’s mother is from Charleston, S.C., Smith told the audience. “If Charleston is where the Civil War started, it’s where perhaps it never ended.”
A poster on his living room wall features Denmark Vesey, a free black man executed in 1822 for leading a slave revolt in Charleston. Vesey founded the early Emanuel AME Church—the site of Wednesday’s white supremacist shooting during a prayer service. In 1822, white supremacists burned the church to the ground.
Smith invoked the spirit of King and “millions and millions” of other beaten black men and women “who will never get a program credit.”
Smith as King drowns at the end of the performance. He flails weakly, then grins and mimics getting on a surfboard, holding his arms up for balance. He flips the bird to the cops swarming his backyard somewhere above.
He spits upward, this time not blood, but water filling his lungs.
“I can’t breathe. I can’t…”