Rodney King: The man beyond the myth

Roger G. Smith as Smiley in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." Screenshot from clip.
Roger G. Smith as Smiley in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Screenshot from clip.

You may recognize Roger Guenveur Smith as the talented actor who played Smiley in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” among other memorable roles. I saw Smith do his one-man show, “The Huey Newton Story, in Seattle in the late ’90s.

Smith melds history with theater in his own way that makes both come alive. Watching him as Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, you could sense Newton’s natural leadership qualities. Newton’s speech cadence, his sharp legal mind, audacious swagger and daring approach as he confronted the Oakland Police Department were very much alive and present on the stage.

Smith now brings his talent and one-man show, “Rodney King,” to Seattle audiences this Thursday for the first time, delving into the complexities and depth of the man who was unjustly and brutally beaten by the police in 1991.

Clip of Roger Guenveur Smith performing “Rodney King” produced by The New York Times.

If you are younger than 34 years old, you may have a vague sense of who Rodney King is.

Ever heard the phrase “Can we all get along?” You can credit Rodney King for this media sound bite. The story of how Rodney Glen King was chased down and beaten by four Los Angeles police officers, their trial, and the riots that followed their acquittal exposed issues of perpetual concern. Is vengeance and more violence the wisest response to police violence? What can Rodney King’s own reactions to the acquittal and the LA Riots teach us about learning to “get along”?

When I spoke to Smith last week by phone I asked him what inspired this piece. He said in the summer of 2012, the unexpected news that Rodney King had died by accidental drowning in his backyard pool led him to drop what he was working on to respond.

Smith thought his Rodney King-inspired work would be “a memorial or meditation in a certain season, i.e. the summer of 2012. I would have an abbreviated meditation at Bootleg Theater” in Los Angeles.

Smith often originates new work at the Bootleg, and he improvised “Rodney King based on public information he found during his research. Smith kept returning to the Bootleg as he developed and refined the piece during the fall of 2012.

Since then, he has accepted invitations to bring “Rodney King” to theaters like The Public in New York, Penubra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn., Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., the Tate Modern in London, DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, and BricArts Brooklyn. Last year, “Rodney King” was recognized with a Bessie Award. 

King somehow survived his beating and managed to publish his autobiography in April of 2012 (“The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption“) — just a few months before his death.

We need to listen to King because police violence has silenced people like 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed by Ferguson, Mo. police in 2014. Locally it’s people like John T. Williams, the 50-year-old Native American woodcarver killed by a police officer in downtown Seattle in 2012, and Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a man shot by Pasco police 13 times last year for throwing rocks at a community festival.

Since that first meditation on the life of Rodney King, Smith finds audiences all over the world connecting King’s experience with their local situation.

“The story has reverberated in peculiar ways in places where I have performed it: St. Paul, Chicago, DC. All of these places have their ‘Rodney King’ story,” said Smith.

Seattle has its Rodney King stories, too. A series of excessive violence incidents with rulings of limited or no wrongdoing by the police has been an ongoing issue in Seattle for decades. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild —the police officers’ union — respond to questions about their policies and practices by community members, the media, and even the federal Department of Justice as though they were challenged to a fist fight. Theirs is not a spirit of a shared city and cooperation, but one that seeks to unquestionably keep the police in the dominant position.

Rodney King said his oft-repeated and taken-out-of-context line “Can we all get along?” during a four-minute speech he made on the third day of the LA riots in 1992 that followed the acquittal of the four police officers who nearly beat King to death.

Rodney King in April 2012 during a Hudson Union Society event at The Players Club in New York City. (Photo by Justin Hoch, republished from Wikimedia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license)
Rodney King in April 2012 during a Hudson Union Society event at The Players Club in New York City. (Photo by Justin Hoch, republished from Wikimedia under a Creative Commons 2.0 license)

King abandoned the script his lawyers had drafted and spoke from his heart. He spoke for himself.

I asked Smith if he felt the connection between the slave narratives like Frederick Douglass wrote and Rodney King telling his own story. Smith definitely saw the connection.

“I’ve been doing ‘Frederick Douglass Now,’ inspired by Douglass, who wrote the classic American slave narrative published in 1845,” he said. “In the narrative tradition, we have first-person testimony. Douglass took it upon himself to advertise that his narrative was written by himself. That’s even in the title. Many of the narratives were told to people and interpreted by them.”

Smith pointed out that what’s not commonly shown is that King answered his own question — “can we get along?” — by the end of his four-minute speech.

Smith considers this one of “the great American speeches” and performs it in the closing moments of his show.

Also, to contrast King’s own views, Smith said he “bookends the show” by leading off with a rap by Willie D of the Ghetto Boys, “F*ck Rodney King.”

Theater serves a unique role in the arts as it is performed and seen live by a group of people together. It often generates formal and informal conversations by audience members.

“Rodney King” should help enlarge and engage the discussion about the proper boundaries for the appropriate use of force by police in Seattle.

The question Seattle faces is, who polices the police? Go because this matters.

Rodney King” is created and directed by Roger Guenveur Smith, with sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson of Chocolate Genius.

Presented by Seattle Theatre Group and Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, “Rodney King” is showing at Langston Hughes on Thursday, March 24 and Friday, March 25 at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, March 26 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Langston Hughes is located at 104 Seventeenth Avenue South in Seattle’s Central District. 

Buy $25 tickets online or call 1-877-784-4849.