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Theater Review: 'Rodney King' And 'Uncle Ho To Uncle Sam' At The Kirk Douglas

Sinduja Rangarajan |
September 24, 2013 | 10:46 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Roger Guenveur Smith in "Rodney King." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Roger Guenveur Smith in "Rodney King." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
One-person shows aren't easy to perform. The performer has to don different hats, play the role of the narrator and all the characters in the story, maintain the same energy levels throughout the piece, and keep the audience engaged through the story. But one-person shows are also powerful because they are intimate, don't give the audience any room for distraction, and force them to immerse themselves into the world of the story that the performer is telling.

"Rodney King" and "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam," are two such plays that tapped into this power of one-person-shows and enthralled audiences at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Sunday.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s "Rodney King," Trieu Tran and Robert Egan's "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam," and Luis Alfaro's "St. Jude" are a trio of solo performances presented by DouglasPlus as a part of the Radar L.A. festival, the international contemporary theatre festival presented by REDCAT and CalArts in association with Center Theatre Group.

With "Rodney King," Roger Guenveur Smith takes the audience back in time to the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The play opens with a powerful fusion music piece mixed with the sounds of police car sirens and a woman yelling, “Fuck everybody... I'm off!” The music sets the scene: it’s the dangerously seductive roads of Los Angeles, the place most of the action happens. From here, Smith traces through Rodney King’s life from that fateful night when King was speeding on his White Hyundai when he gets caught and is brutalized by the LAPD to the aftermath on the streets of Los Angeles burning in the riots to King’s famous "Can we all get along?" plea on CNN to the day that he died in his swimming pool. 

Smith tells this story as if he is having a conversation with Rodney King, by putting Rodney King's invisible ghost amongst the audience. He doesn’t let the audience forget King for a moment as he asks from time to time, “Right, Rodney?” It felt like he wasn’t really talking to Rodney but to the audience, forcing them to think about the riots and confront the skeletons from their past. 

Smith makes uncomfortable comparisons—like when he compares King after he was beaten up by the LAPD officials to the deer from the movie "Deer Hunter," showing how King was treated with the cruelty and cold insensitivity with which animals are treated. He slowly enacts little scenes with the purpose of putting the audience through discomfort, like the number of blows King receives from the LAPD police officials counting and sounding every blow - 16, 17…40,41..55, or like the numerous stories of personal tragedy and violence that he enacts with great detail, one after another. 

As a performer, Smith is brilliant. The play uses almost no props and doesn't have emphasize costumes, making Smith's performance stand out all the more. Smith also uses familiar street names like "Florence and Figueroa" or "Florence and Normandy" while he was narrating specific incidents, an effective technique that transports the audience directly to the streets where the events happened. He raps, sings, switches accents and hypnotizes the audience with his slow, rhythmic moves throughout the play. Smith's slow pace of movements allows the audience to deliberate on the grave topic and soak in the horror of the riots. Smith's rendition of King's plea on CNN towards the climax is particulary praiseworthy as he portrays King as a frail and reluctant hero who asks a seemingly stupid but ultimately powerful question, "Can we all get along?" forgiving his perpetrators because he sees the larger picture. 

Trieu Tran in "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Trieu Tran in "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
While "Rodney King" is serious and sober, "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" is energetic and funny. In this play, Trieu Tran takes the audience through an intense personal journey while exploring complex themes like immigration, race, relationships and violence. 

Tran vividly narrates the many adventures of his life as he moves from Vietnam through a Thai refugee camp to Canada and finally to the United States to pursue the American dream. Tran tries to embrace western values throughout his childhood and adolescent years by listening to hip-hop music, dancing to Michael Jackson and dreaming of eating a McDonald's happy meal. 

He tries to adopt all things American to fit in into the world in which he is thrown. But things aren't easy for him as he has to deal with a difficult relationship with his father at home and rejection by the society at large, outside of home. Tran wants to look into the future and adopt the values of the society he is in, whereas his father, haunted by war, does not want to let go of his past. As he is trying to make sense of his life, Tran explores relationships between the different immigrant groups in the United States and describes poignantly, his experiences with Boston gangs, violence and racial inequality. 

Watching Tran perform is like reading a novel and watching a play at the same time. Tran makes all the colorful characters he encounters come alive as he enacts them, but without being overly dramatic. The words he uses are simple, but powerfully descriptive and one gets a sense of the place he is talking about, whether it was the green fields of Vietnam or the cold winters in Canada. 

The play begins with the Vietnamese flag hung on one side of the wall in the background and ends with the American unfurling the American flag on the other side indicating that Tran has learnt to reconcile his Vietnamese roots with his life in the United States—something his father failed to achieve.

"Rodney King" and "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" have markedly different flavors, but both of them are intense and powerful.

"Rodney King" and "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" are playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City) through October 6. Tickets are $20. More information can be found at CenterTheatreGroup.org.

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Reach staff reporter Sinduja Rangarajan here.



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