Brilliant ‘Rodney King’ asks unanswerable questions

In Rodney King, Roger Guenveur Smith, pictured in a D.C. production, confronts tough history. Photo courtesy of Patti McGuire/The Washington Post.
In Rodney King, Roger Guenveur Smith, pictured in a D.C. production, confronts tough history. Photo courtesy of Patti McGuire/The Washington Post.

Walking out of Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance of Rodney King last Wednesday night, as “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by Kendrick Lamar rang throughout the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, I dreaded the challenge of writing this review for the Record. Smith’s theatrical and poetic representation of the life of Rodney King, whose abuse by police helped spark the 1992 Los Angeles riots, had challenged me to reevaluate my understanding of an average man’s place in the history of racial tension in America.

Having been required to attend the performance for my “Introduction to American Studies” class, taught by Senior Lecturer in English and American Studies Cassandra Cleghorn, I had not expected to be captivated by Smith’s piece. However, the uncomfortably long introduction in which the song “Rodney K.” by Willie D filled the empty stage, piqued my interest (and if you are unfamiliar with Kendrick Lamar and Willie D, I suggest you Google their respective songs to better understand the tone of Smith’s work). For as I waited for someone to occupy the white square painted on the floor, and listened to Willie D’s provocative and offensive lyrics, the King figure portrayed by CNN and Fox, a figure I had diligently researched in preparation for class discussion and the performance, became more complicated.

After the introduction, Smith appeared to wander into the white box at center stage and perform his own interpretation of King’s life based on (as we learned during the question-and-answer session after the performance) extensive Google searches. Thus through intense movement and spoken-word poetry, Smith addressed difficult questions regarding racial tension in the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the media’s characterization of King, the man whose beating at the hands of L.A. police set the city on fire.

Having talked with members of my American Studies class and with Professor Cleghorn, I know with absolute certainty that I am unable to answer the questions provoked by the piece. In other words, I am still struggling with my interpretation after extensive and exhaustive conversations. Understanding my own struggles, I would like to offer my personal reaction to three aspects of the performance.

Technical Theatrics

From a theatrical standpoint, Rodney King was brilliant. Written and performed by Smith, the piece is the brainchild of the award-winning actor best known for his role in Do the Right Thing. And although Smith carries the show, Lighting Designer Jose Lopez and Sound Designer Marc Anthony Thompson deserve praise for realizing Smith’s vision and ensuring that the one-man performance did not feel claustrophobic. For example, Smith’s vocal portrayal of the beating of King is harsh and uncomfortable, yet did not force audience members to leave. We were forced to endure.

Additionally, in an era of visually-dependent media, the piece was refreshingly simple. As Cleghorn explained during our class discussion, having a blind student in our class has made her re-evaluate the role of visual imagery within her curriculum, and Rodney King provided a powerful example of relying heavily on audio storytelling.

The Question of Heroism

At the end of the question-and-answer session, Ashish Solanki ’19 asked a question concerning the ambiguous end of the performance and referenced King as a hero. Smith responded to the question about the end, but he also attempted to address whether King should be remembered as a hero or as an average man who became a reluctant spokesperson.

I believe much of Smith’s purpose with Rodney King is to portray the figure behind the 1992 Los Angeles riots as a victim of circumstances who eventually died at the bottom of his swimming pool, and thus each member in the audience is left to consider whether King should be remembered as a hero or as a sacrifice.

Smith’s Relationship to King

Smith explained that when he first learned of King’s death in 2012, he began to research King’s life using Google and eventually constructed and workshopped the concept of Rodney King. Although Smith did not have a personal relationship with King, much of the work’s complexities stem from Smith’s own interpretations of Rodney King, he said. For most of the piece, Smith employs the second person to address King, using phrases such as, “Did you hear that, Rodney?” In addition to the close relationship between actor and historical figure, the audience was led towards Smith’s own understanding of King. In other words, Smith challenges the people who think they understand King’s story and the Los Angeles riots by humanizing the figure portrayed in mass media.

I will conclude by again acknowledging that Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance of Rodney King asked more questions than it answered. By struggling with these issues, however, each member of the audience learned of his or her own bias against King as a central figure of the history of police brutality and race relations.

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