A SINGLE WHITE RECTANGLE on the floor stands out against a black stage. A handheld mic is the only prop. The show opens with jumbled sounds. The audience hears clipped fragments of reportage and layered voices: difficult to make out but that force the audience to listen with care.Emergency calls, police scanners, news coverage — so many cackling empty voices filling the void of understanding with noise and empty utterances. An absence of makeup and the casual costuming of khakis with a worn old shirt allow the actor to disappear into pure speech, pure information. Stripped-down and spare, the solo-show honors simplicity. The facts, the story, and the music of the words engulf our attention completely.
Roger Guenveur Smith’s Rodney King is a tense, emotional journey. The play is an improvisational performance piece, both an act of biographical recovery and biographical interpretation. Over the course of the play, Smith recounts moments from King’s tragic life and death, from his childhood, to his relationships with his father and family, to Los Angeles, to his beating, to his trial and the subsequent “LA riots.” It is a haunting chronicle of the life, the media invention, and public significance of an African-American man whose prolonged, brutal beating by white Los Angeles police — later acquitted — was captured on videotape.
We tune in as Smith quotes rapper Willie D in a deadpan voice, repeating the phrase “Fuck Rodney King.” Despite maintaining an eerie objective distance, Smith as Willie D demeans King’s integrity, humanity, and masculinity — calling him an “Uncle Tom,” because of King’s speech on May 1, in which he called for an end to the rioting and public violence. In Willie D’s view, this boiled down to accommodating white desires for black behavior and identity. Immediately, through Smith’s masterful performative layering of himself as raconteur, commentator, and critic, repeating the cruel epithet, we imagine what it might be like for Rodney King to hear himself victimized by another black man. His own words, his selfhood rendered meaningless.
Through the power sustained in Smith’s presentation of immense and nuanced research, we see the embodiment of a complex personal trajectory, a historical moment, and a contemporary pain. The meeting of history, biography, language, image, and enactment in the performance is simmering and provocative in its highlighting of surprising details of King’s life. Smith’s uncommon self-effacement accompanies smooth, lyrical voicing, and precise, finely tuned emotional scoring of plain talk. Smith’s gift for mapping lives is a wonder of strategic organization. The work is packed with images and language that, in their simplicity and power, move the viewer to consider the symbolic character of the past and its striking synergies with the present.
Smith’s performance explores the gaps between the trials of iconicity and mundane existence in the life of a man known to his closest friends simply as “Glen.” The play explores questions of race, violence, and the complex layers of tragedy that characterize both our personal and collective histories. Smith reveals how a man named “Glen” came to be a figure we recognized quite readily, without really knowing him at all.
Rodney “Glen” King died on Father’s Day, June 17, 2012, just two months after the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. King’s death also came just two months after the publication of The Riot Within (2012), an autobiography. The creative birthing of his personal story on the page blended contemporaneously with a mass media recounting of his victimization, trauma, and shame. No doubt, the book release was carefully planned, and its entry into the media frenzy that surrounded the riots’ anniversary — in which accounts of his violent public beating, the judicial system’s acquittal of the perpetrators, and the eruption of large-scale destruction in the city were replayed over and over again — helped to finally create a balance in our sense of King not only as an icon, but as a man.
Within two months of King’s death, Smith was on stage developing this piece, echoing and complicating the story King had created of his own life. Smith embarked on an exploration of why King weighed so heavily on his mind and his previous work — why he felt so deeply mournful about the loss of a man he did not know. He sought what we all, perhaps, had missed in the story of Rodney King. Smith is a Los Angeles native, and throughout his award-winning career as an actor, playwright, and director, he had already referenced King a number of times. In Smith’s work, an iconic King operated to reference the vulnerability of black people, not simply to the vagaries of prejudice, but to the life-threatening violence of structurally condoned racial hatred. The public beating, rendered in the dark, served as a manifestation of the history of slavery, segregation, and the violence that sustains a persistent US racial inequality.
This embedded connection gives us some idea of how “Glen” and the riots came to be enmeshed. What happened to King served a symbolic purpose for the endless commentaries on race and class in America, and on black identity and experience, that had been waiting to ignite — from news reporters and politicians, to social scientists, to comics, to white supremacists, to Roger Smith. Once personally desecrated and thrown into national prominence, King’s name and image became a reference for the interests of the speaker, whether righteous or destructive, creative or journalistic.
The brutal beating of King, and the history it evoked, played over and over before our eyes, becoming a history of its own. The resonant, dark memories of too many black men and families were at last laid bare. For many of the rest of us, it was a nightmare and a terror, an echo of a wishfully distant past externalized and contemporized. Immediately after the beating on March 3, 1991, Smith, along with collaborators Mark Broyard, Ben Caldwell, Wesley Michael Groves, and Kim Nickerson, staged a theatrical performance called “KAOS TV” at Ben Caldwell’s KAOS Gallery in Leimert Park that anticipated the events of April 1992: the police vindication and concomitant demonstrations of race-based rage. By focusing on TV as a site for spectacular chaos, Smith’s show recognized early on the complex relationship between media image-making and public consumption of this particularly explosive material. Television coverage revealed the open secret of a disciplinary structure of race in America. The airing of George Holliday’s video, which revealed the beatings to the public eye, turned what many black people had always expected from the police into a widespread post–civil rights outrage.
With “KAOS TV,” Smith and his collaborators positioned blackness and the violence it provokes within America as a postmodern form of chaos — an embodied marker of society’s disintegration and a “whipping-boy” for its economic disappointments. The team used a radio studio–style glass booth as the set from which to broadcast “live” video feeds from the street featuring “proper cover-up techniques” for LAPD victims. In clever ways, they juxtaposed “Hollywood” against “Watts” and the hard fact of an overblown LA map against a disappeared black woman who was both physically and existentially lost, thus questioning the constructed versus the real, location versus unmooring, safety versus danger. In doing so, they added an abstract layer to the familiar, pragmatic understanding of black racial identity that is more typical of protests and activism.
Yet Rodney King is a departure from Smith’s positioning of King’s experience as a measure of history, injustice, and the disintegration of meaning. Rather, it is an exploration of King himself and of the emotional dimension of his experiences.
The play is a beautiful conjuring of collective spirit around grief and death in the everyday. For many Angelenos, the specter of danger or a violent death is a daily fact of life. Smith’s King emerges as a man as real and flawed as any, caught in the throes of these particular and onerous challenges.
King was caught within tragic cycles of abuse and alcoholism, which are not all that easy to dismiss. The show takes a penetrating, individualized look at King as simply one crucial link in the chain of violent death that has fallen upon black Los Angeles like a chronic plague. This mortal vulnerability, a manifestation of deep structural inequalities, state abandonment, and embedded racial assumptions and behaviors, comes forth in the singular example of this man — coping, in his case, through destructive means.
Rodney King is built upon a mountain of historical, biographical, and social research. To prepare for this undertaking, Smith studied books, journals, and textual and video traces of the historical record. He then transformed those traces of memory, the disposable details of the everyday, into symbolic threads that shape meaning — like a choice of clothing, a nickname, a pastime, a means of death.
He does this, surprisingly, through improvisation. Smith’s memory becomes one great archive upon which he draws to fill out the play, but the stories change with each rendering. He moves through planned phases (like childhood, adolescence, work life, the beating) and towards specific marks (recurring alcohol use, Willie D lyrics, symbolic geographies), while filling the spaces between with historical and media details that accomplish the goals of that section of the story. This material changes from performance to performance. A certain childhood story arises one night that falls out in another; the details of one death that carry symbolic resonance in one part of the show may take on new or different details in another place, or may not appear at all, their disappearance opening a space for other tales to make fresh connections with different parts of King’s life.
Smith’s form mimics life, invoking daily experience through a ready presence and consequent recognition that from moment to moment events — on stage or not — may go off-script. This technique heightens the intensity of his production and engages the contingent characteristics of memory, the quality of “what if?” that exists in every moment, to shape the future. Our present is formed by what we remember. What we remember shapes what we know, and thus what we recognize as fact or truth.
Smith’s style recalls and remaps the terrifyingly mundane repetition of black trauma that is the subject of his work of re-memory. We, as the audience, are implicated in this process of remembering, positioned simultaneously as witnesses and participants in a shared past, a heightened knowledge and reimagined truth, and a newly possible future.
The meanderings of life are made flesh in the meanderings of story. Phrases and episodes flow like the water created in the moody, drifting movement and white light that at times submerges Smith’s body. Smith’s arms and torso seem to float as he performs a near constant, subtle dance. Smith manages to suggest both movement and stillness in his light fluid gestures. His body appears to balance precariously upon a precipice — perhaps a ledge of reimagined memory.
The symbolic gestures of history and the archive come alive in Smith’s narrative: King, in his Rasta hat with dreds attached, travels “incog-negro” to the intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles. The “red, gold, black, and green” of the hat and the slow lyrics of Bob Marley’s “Burnin’ and Lootin’” form the ironic and symbolic soundtrack of King’s drive. The song bemoans failed revolution and excessive and irreversible violence. King is clothed in lost hope.
Having watched the stirrings of the unrest at home on TV, King appears intoxicated, just as he was on the night he was beaten nearly to death. King leaves the drunken safety of those four walls, the bluish flashes of the “screen” bouncing off Smith like water, to the site of the day’s most publicized crime — the brutal assault of a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who was dragged from his rig by gang members at Florence and Normandie. Smith uses a fallen electrical cable at that burning corner to evoke the beatings King received during his youth from his own father with an electrical cord, as well as the electrical charges he sustained during the police attack. King sees the sparks and experiences a shock of pyrrhic revelation, leaving the scene of the riots, where he can have no impact, to drink from more bottles of looted brown liquors brought to him in near-tribute. The uncomfortable blend of ironic and heart-rending detail becomes an electrical impulse of its own; the powerlessness and layered victimization in King’s experience is distilled in this theatrical moment.
The effects of the victimization persist. When King died in 2012, it was from having consumed alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and PCP and subsequently drowning in his pool. Water as symbol and substance spills forth in Rodney King, assuming a tragic symbolism from King’s drowning to swimming, surfing, and King-fishing with his father; even the shifting whites that appear in the show’s lighting evoke the elusive force and presence of various waters. King’s own father, nicknamed “the King Fish,” drowned in a bathtub. The legacy of addiction and abuse that King considered “hereditary” becomes mirrored in the drowning of father and son in pools of water and alcohol. Like his use of water, Smith’s elegiac narrative layers the moments in language compounding their symbolic resonance and translating King’s demise into much more than a tragic coincidence.
In fact, we float with King at the “deep end” of multiple traumatic pools. It was helicopter spotlight that permitted George Holliday to film the iconic video that made it overwhelmingly clear that the black driver of a white Hyundai was beaten and abused by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. In the play, King struggles against the blows that Smith enacts, blows that came in the deep end of that bright flood at the bottom of the police helicopter’s spotlight. It is not entirely unlike the deep end of the pool where King was found dead, or the “deep ends” of police brutality, structural racism, personal invisibility, media spotlighting, and, of course, the deep end of King’s grave.
As a counter to the caustic Willie D opening, Smith offers a poetic finish by reprising Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” at the show’s close. The song contemplates alcohol’s alternately chic and desensitizing appeals, and the tragedy of alcoholism’s often intergenerational character. Smith incorporates Lamar’s references to swimming pools of liquor — “If I take another one down / I’ma drown in some poison abusing my limit” — as a warning against the tragic perils of addiction. “Swimming Pools” echoes the play’s empathetic query about the impacts of human submersion in disillusionment and pain.
Smith’s King is neither hero nor icon. He is a man weighted down by addiction, substance abuse, and histories of violence — a man who ultimately drowns. When social violence erupted in response to his court case and the injustice carried out against his body, he was not the hero the public desired to quell the unrest and lead the country into a new racial utopia of calm, love, and peace. But he was the man who was there.
In Rodney King, there are no heroes, and certainly no racial ones. There is no group or person that takes on heroic stature as either a victim or a savior. Citizens of every racial group can be killers and are killed. In a sacred tribute, Smith catalogs the names and experiences of some of the dead. This naming allows other stories to come alive, and the social resonance of telling King’s seemingly singular story to grow. We learn about 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African American who was shot in the head by a Korean shop owner under the assumption that she stole some orange juice. We hear about the Black community members who transported King’s acquaintance, Reginald Denny, a white man, to the hospital and saved his life. And how, on the last day of rioting, Mexican-American Victor Rivas was shot to death by the National Guard in front of the Inner City Cultural Center. Such lives and the threads of their stories trail in the narrative stream, flowing with Smith’s recurrent choreography of floating, swimming, and sinking. Both murderous and loving acts rise from archives onto the stage.
King’s death adds an exclamation point to the litany of pyrrhic deaths associated with widespread urban violence and vigilante-style brutality, and the deep sense of personal grief stemming from them that seems without end.
Although King is not a hero, and his story is not one of transcendence or survival, he is a herald of a larger tragedy and is positioned as an unsuspecting voice of freedom. Smith is known for his stunning interpretations of biography, including performances of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s canonical 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Now part and parcel of this repertoire, King’s offering takes on gentle yet epic force in Smith’s poignant rendering. Smith recites the entirety of King’s fabled “May 1st” speech in King’s impromptu words. In the address, King went radically off-book, rejecting the four pages of comments his lawyers had prepared for him to deliver so he could speak from his heart to the television public. Smith’s interpretation allows us to re-view and re-envision King’s improvisation and enables his much misquoted phrase, “Can’t we all get along?” to become only a small part of King’s own heart-driven message.
In constantly replaying King’s assault, the world denied him the peace of forgetting. Often touted as the man who took the most famous “ass-whipping” in history, King is visible only for his repeated victimization. At one TV talk show, long after the riots had ended, King was introduced to the audience as “Rodney ‘motherfucking’ King!” The audience cheered and laughed. Here Rodney King was “called out” of his already distorted name, called up to embody an experience outside of and beyond his own, his personal presence merely an aside and an afterthought.
In contrast, the personal presence is what comes through in Rodney King. Smith enables us to hear, in person, the details of one life — a life that served on a grand scale as a touchstone for the confrontation of social forces and failures.
Rodney King runs from September 18 to October 6, 2013, at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles. Stephanie Leigh Batiste is a performance artist, author, and a professor of English and Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara.