Rodney King: Theater Review
L.A.'s late, tortured symbol of its continued struggle with racism is embodied in a one-man show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
Opening with the infamously scabrous, homophobic diatribe from 1992 by Geto Boys rapper Willie D (“[F*ck] Rodney K.”) and closing with a “benediction” from 2012 by Compton hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), this intricate eulogy of an emblematic black Everyman whose victimhood was both self-induced and spectacularly escalated by irrefutable violent racial oppression highlights familiar facts from a complex multitude of perspectives. Especially for a Los Angeles audience, there is much here we already painfully know and much creator/performer Roger Guenveur Smith illuminates perceptively in this solo play workshopped earlier this year at the Bootleg and now being presented in repertory at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of the ongoing Radar L.A. international festival.
Smith pulls no punches, yet he scrupulously hews to accurate particulars even as he throws out provocations representing the many competing views of a man far more acted upon by history than authoring his own destiny. Indeed, Smith insinuatingly suggests that celebrity even denuded King of his own name, since everyone he knew called him “Glen,” his middle name, but after he hit the news he became known only by his police blotter handle off his driver’s license. The blurry video of King’s police beating became the images denoting the ongoing vulnerability of all black males, and when the officers were acquitted by an all-white jury in Simi Valley, with King again in bondage, unable to speak at his own trial because of a gag order issued at the request of his own attorney, the resulting “riots” (or alternatively, “uprising”) appropriated his plight as the motivation for retributive anger, more atrocities committed in the name of “Rodney.”
Crucially, Smith also invokes the infuriating impact of the Latasha Harlins killing, in which a 15-year-old girl trying to pay a convenience store checker for an orange juice was shot in the back of the head after being falsely accused of shoplifting, her slayer walking away free after a guilty verdict with probation and 400 hours of community service. “What about our 400 years of community service, building this country?” Smith acidly observes, “and this is the justice we get.”
Chameleonically the quicksilver Smith strikes a variety of impersonations, although it is primarily his own narrative voice, in a heightened lyrical address as though importuning King directly, that recounts in heightened, bardic speech both horrors and banalities with equally pointed intensity. Smith only uses King’s own words when King himself finally gets his one memorable chance to speak, pushed in front of the media to placate the raging hordes with a prepared text he cannot, with his dyslexia, read. Instead, haltingly and ever memorably, for once he expresses his own feelings in his own inarticulate way. Smith captures the moment precisely, not as we remember it but as it actually went down, and it is all the more moving for his respect for the truth of that moment.
King’s pathetic demise, drowned drunk in his own backyard swimming pool purchased with the blood money settlement from the City of Los Angeles, becomes in Smith’s hands an ironic yet profoundly heartfelt requiem to the enduring right of every person to be allowed to be who they are, to flail in our flawed way to whatever pursuit of happiness our demons afford us. Smith expertly invests his subject with a dignity that surmounts the pathos.
Venue: Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through Oct. 6)
Cast: Roger Guenveur Smith
Playwright: Roger Guenveur Smith
Lighting designer: Jose Lopez
Sound designer: Marc Anthony Thompson