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Radar L.A. Review: 'Rodney King' At The Kirk Douglas Theatre

Dylan Valley |
September 24, 2013 | 9:51 p.m. PDT

Contributing Writer

Roger Guenveur Smith in "Rodney King." Photo by Patti McGuire.
Roger Guenveur Smith in "Rodney King." Photo by Patti McGuire.
Roger Guenveur Smith stands on the stage, microphone in hand, with a certain hip hop bravado. “F*** Rodney King” he bellows. Not exactly the opening line the audience was expecting, but from this arresting moment, Smith carries a captivated audience through his one man show "Rodney King."

A visceral exploration of the story that both shocked and captivated America, "Rodney King" examines the man who, through an unprecedented act of documented police brutality, became America’s "first reality TV star.” In the opening scene, Smith takes on the character of Willie D, a Houston rapper who considered King a sellout, highlighting the conflicting attitudes and reactions that people have had to Rodney King’s story and persona.

Rodney Glen King was a complex and broken figure in more ways than one. A construction worker and parolee, King became widely known for a 1991 incident where he was severely beaten by several LAPD officers following an intense car chase. King supposedly resisted arrest and was subsequently beaten by police officers within an inch of his life. A man nearby videotaped the entire assault, took the footage to the local press and, to quote Smith, the video went “viral before viral was viral.” Surviving the brutal beating, King was thrust into the spotlight as a reluctant hero and a civil rights icon. The video of the beating spread like wildfire making the later acquittal of the police officers spark the notorious 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Smith tells King’s story through a third person narrator who appears to be communicating with Rodney King’s ghost. At first, Smith is the militant, homophobic Willie D, who dislikes King for using his fame to preach peace and non-violence. Then Smith's tone shifts to that of a more empathetic peer. At times it feels like Smith is an interrogator but he moves between these disembodied voices fluidly and seamlessly. Similarly, Smith’s body seems to be constantly moving. Serene, slow movements are punctured by sudden moments of extreme violence, contrasted for maximum effect. The minimal set design, a black stage with a white square in the middle, does well to allow the audience to focus on Smith’s storytelling. The sound design, atmospheric mood pieces with hints of hip hop beats, also subtly gets out of the way to let Smith do his thing. 

Smith does not present King’s story as one isolated act of violence, instead he weaves different narratives together, telling stories of others who were the victims of violence in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In a memorable scene, Smith does a haunting a cappella version of Bob Marley's “Burning and Looting” as he re-enacts the day where Rodney King disguised as a Rastafarian to witness some of the riots which were taking place. King was tormented by the bloodshed that arose from his much-publicized assault, and the play shows how he struggled with the idea of being attached to these disturbing riots.

Rather than worship King as a Saint, Smith explores King's dark side including his struggle with drugs and alcohol, and his abusive childhood. Smith suggests King’s abusive relationship with his father prepared him for the beating he received from the LAPD that late night in March. The audience is also exposed to sides of King that have not been publicized, such as his love for surfing that broke many racial stereotypes.

Amidst all the darkness, "Rodney King" is not without its humor. The script is full of clever wordplay and punch lines like using the term “incognegro” to describe King's Rasta disguise. The play even begins with archival audio where an interviewer asks Rodney King what he would have done differently the day he was attacked. His response? “I would have stayed at home.” This humor always comes with a sense of pathos, and Smith skillfully uses the audience’s laughter to highlight how King had become the butt of many jokes, causing the room to suddenly become pin-drop quiet.

Smith is no stranger to exploring historic African American figures on stage. He won an Obie award for "A Huey P. Newton Story," another one-man show about the co-founder of The Black Panthers, which was later adapted into a film. King’s story is an equally important one as it forever heightened an awareness of institutional racial violence in modern America, and Smith delivers the punch as well as the humanity that is needed in presenting this complex tragedy. "Rodney King" is a must see play, a powerful synergy of poetry, movement and memory that will transcend time much like the story it attempts to understand.

"Rodney King" is playing through October 6 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City).
Tickets are $20-$25. For more information visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.

More coverage of the Radar L.A. Festival 2013 can be found here.

Contact Contributing Writer Dylan here or follow him on Twitter.



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