Rodney King playwright and performer Roger Guenveur Smith is putting on an acting clinic this week for PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. The 59-year-old Berkeley, CA native’s searing solo about the tragic life and untimely death, at age 47, of Rodney Glen King III (1965-2012) is an incendiary performance, teeming with vivid vignettes from the troubled life and times of the African-American California construction worker whose horrific videotaped March 3, 1991 beatdown by four Los Angeles police officers, after a high-speed chase, poured gasoline on already smoldering embers of racial tension and ultimately sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the four policeman who thumped King over and over and over with their batons were inexplicably acquitted of state charges that they had used excessive force during the traffic stop and that beating King with their batons constituted assault with a deadly weapon. (On April 16, 1993, two of the four officers were convicted on federal charges of violating King’s civil rights and sent to prison.)
Rodney King is a fever dream of a play, in which Roger Guenveur Smith cinematically segues from scene to scene to scene in the increasingly sozzled mind of Rodney King, whose unexpected and totally unwelcome notoriety as this nation’s number-one victim of police brutality exacerbated his tendencies to drink and drug himself into oblivion. Indeed, after King drowned in his own swimming pool on June 17, 2012, an autopsy speculated that the alcohol and a combination of drugs in his system — combined with a heart condition — probably prevented him from saving himself when he slipped beneath the surface.
New York City sound designer and singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson’s soundtrack underscores King’s mood swings and the emotions of the footnote players in the Rodney King saga — whom Smith briefly but indelibly inhabits — and Boyle Heights, LA lighting designer José López artfully illuminates the proceedings, which mostly take place in the darkest recesses of King’s mind, with red-and-blue squad-car lights flashing from somewhere offstage providing the lurid backdrop for the beating of Rodney King that Roger Guenveur Smith reenacts blow-by-sickening-blow.
In the beginning, Rodney King cranks up the volume with a few stanzas from Willie D of Geto Boys’ venomous 1992 “F*ck Rodney King” rap calling Rodney King a “good little nigga,” an Uncle Tom, a sell-out, and “a gay”, and concludes with Rodney King’s poignant May 1, 1992 “Can we all get along?” plea to the rioters running amok in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere to stop rioting, looting, killing, and maiming people in his name. But what Roger Guenveur Smith does in-between is paint an unforgettable warts-and-all portrait of a man whose supporters and detractors wanted to be a symbol, a man who never found peace except in a bottle or a dose of drugs. Smith does what Rodney King could never do — escape the notoriety that made him a cause célèbre in some circles and a punchline in others.
Roger Smith’s Rodney King is a remarkable 65-minute drama, performed without intermission; and it makes a fine springboard for the type of freewheeling post-performance discussions that make the UNC professional-theater-in-residence’s PRC2 second-stage series such a conversation starter. This time, the subject is the National Conversation on race and a man who was thrust, literally kicking and screaming, into the national spotlight.
Today, 23 years after Rodney King became a household name, there are still soul-searching questions to be asked about how to improve racial relations and banish prejudice from policing. See Rodney King and join the conversation.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 3rd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Trey K. Morehouse: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=6944; Sept. 3rd Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://thefivepointsstar.com/2014/09/03/dont-shoot-roger-guenveur-smiths-timely-rodney-king-at-prc2/; Sept. 2nd Chapel Hill, NC WUNC 91.5 interview with Roger Guenveur Smith, conducted by Frank Stasio: http://wunc.org/post/searching-man-behind-myth; Sept. 1st Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Elizabeth Baker: http://www.dailytarheel.com/blog/canvas/2014/09/rodney-king-preview-0902 and PRC season preview by Clayton Johnson: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2014/09/playmakers-repertory-company-season-preview; and Aug. 30th Durham, NC Triangle Tribune preview by Maria Magher: http://www.triangletribune.com/news/2014/08/30/arts-and-lifestyle/play-brings-rodney-king-back-to-life/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 2nd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2014/09/rodney-king-written-and-performed-by-roger-guenveur-smith-opens-sept-2nd-at-playmakers/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents RODNEY KING, written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 4 and 5 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: Ticket prices start at $15.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/rodneyking and https://www.facebook.com/events/335768896598687/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://vimeo.com/82805277 and http://www.nytimes.com/video/theater/100000002644085/in-performance-roger-guenveur-smith.html.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company.
NOTE: There will be post-performance discussions with Roger Guenveur Smith and the creative team, plus local subject-matter experts.
Rodney King (California construction worker whose beating by Los Angeles police officers sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots, 1965-2012): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King (Wikipedia).
Roger Guenveur Smith (playwright and performer): http://guenveur.com/home.html (official website), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=407164 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0809793/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/roger.g.smith.10 (Facebook page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Guenveur_Smith (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing email@example.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)