When Lincoln wrote Horace Greeley in 1864 saying his main concern was the preservation of the Union and that he was indifferent on the issue of abolition, Frederick Douglass was appalled at the President’s lack of moral outrage. “Our chief danger lies in the absence of all moral feeling in the utterances of our rulers,” he wrote in the New York Tribune.
In our own time, the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings drew an outpouring of demonstrators last year, but little moral outrage from local and national leaders. The Garner case in particular, with its footage of a gang of cops piling on, was reminiscent of another case from 24 years before, one that ushered in our current age of camera ubiquity and bad cops caught in the act — Rodney King.
“It was not something I think was surprising to those of us who have a history of LAPD’s brutality,” Roger Guenveur Smith tells THR about the events that inspired his 2013 show, Rodney King, which is in revival at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Jan 30. “To the world at large it was symbolic of something that continues to be disturbing, a video beating and the violent abuse of power.”
Smith describes the show as an hourlong meditation on a man he calls the first reality TV star, someone given a new name (his friends called him Glen), whose life became defined by the media. In the show, he aims to reverse the process, shedding light on a middle-class construction worker from Altadena, “a tragically flawed, common man who is placed in uncommon circumstances and who struggled for the rest of his life to reconcile that.”
The evening begins with Smith in a rectangle of white light, rapping about King in a homophobic rant that compares him to Uncle Tom. It turns out he is quoting from rapper Willy D.‘s “Fuck Rodney King,” released at the time. From there, through a mash-up of impersonations, quotes and observations, Smith peels back the onion on a regular guy who was more country than city and more surfer than street.
The evening comes to an end with King’s ‘Can we all get along’ speech. “We usually hear it as a very quick clip, and quite frequently misquoted clip,” explains Smith. “I presented it in its entirety because I happen to think it’s one of the great American speeches.” During the riots that followed the acquittal of his attackers, Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and former Officer Timothy Wind, King tossed out a prepared speech and spoke off the cuff, invoking universal brotherhood in a broken syntax reflecting the brain damage he suffered in the attack.
Then-president George H.W. Bush expressed surprise at the acquittal, but little outrage, just as President Obama responded to the Garner acquittal with a temperate emphasis on the obvious saying, “When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that’s a problem.”
And though outrage may be lacking among our leadership, Smith is encouraged by what he sees among the general public. “I would not say that outrage is not there. It is not being articulated in the same way it was articulated in Los Angeles in April and May of 1992.”
Smith was just beginning to work in film and television back in the early ’90s, after graduating from the Yale School of Drama and honing his craft at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the New York Shakespeare Festival. When King’s attackers were acquitted, he and a friend did a fake news piece called Kaos TV, which presciently imagined conflagrations around the city that materialized shortly thereafter.
“We have a whole new generation of people who don’t know Rodney King as my generation would know him,” says Smith who, in addition to performing, is a teacher at Cal Arts. “I have students that were born in 1991, 92, 93, so this is an introduction for them. And it’s a reintroduction for people of an older generation who knew Rodney King, I think, simply as a symbol, or they knew him simply as a victim.”