In a MSR phone interview last week, the actor-director-writer, whose stage and screen credits span over four decades, said of King, who died in 2012: “I didn’t know him and I never saw him in person. [But] I always had extraordinary respect for him.”
King became a household name after a videotaped beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 was broadcast to the nation and worldwide. The officers were charged but acquitted at trial, causing outrage and setting off the L.A. riots of 1992.
On the third day of rioting, King spoke to the media asking for peace. His plea, “Can we all get along?” became a cultural flashpoint.
“I referenced him over a number of years,” said Smith on King, who in 2012 was found dead in his swimming pool due to cardiac arrest. “But I never used him as a butt of a joke.
“So seldom do we hear Rodney King’s speech in its entirety,” continued Smith. “If we hear it at all, it’s one little sound bite. Quite frequently, he’s misquoted.”
Rodney King is “a portrait of a man and the moment that set a city afire,” stated a Penumbra promotional mailing. But Smith duly pointed out that it’s much more.
“This is a man who stopped the biggest riot in United States history,” noted the actor. “He could have said — in front of the camera and the microphone — ‘Burn it all down’ [and] people would have said he’s justified. But he didn’t.”
Rather, “He answered his own question by saying ‘Yes we can,’” added Smith. “We dug very deeply into his humanity. I think that sense of humanity is what I want to impart to my audience.”
No one in 1992 would have imagined King’s words, or what Smith calls “a great gospel” that the man gave America and the world, would be as applicable today almost a quarter-century later, he said. “I think that what [King] bequeathed to us is of essential value.”
As a result, “I jumped into this piece… I thought that this piece was going to be a kind of memorial. [But for] one reason or another, it continues to resonate. Is that because of the temperature of our country? Yes, it has something to do with that.
“I think the piece is significant and resonates because of what’s going on in this country and what has been documented,” reiterated Smith. He recalled how last year he was performing the play in New York when the non-indictment decision on Eric Garner death was announced.
“We organized an emergency town hall meeting that weekend after the play,” he said, “and spontaneously [afterwards] went out of the theater into the cold, into the New York streets and stopped traffic, peacefully and non-violent.”
Smith admitted it is more challenging to portray a person like King, than his earlier one-man shows, A Huey P. Newton Story and Frederick Douglass Now. “To do it right is the great challenge to do him justice,” said Smith on King, whose life has been less documented.
Although he’s on the stage alone, Smith proudly pointed out Rodney King is “a beautiful collaboration” between himself, musical director Marc Anthony Thompson, lighting designer Jose Lopez, and Kirk Wilson, the production manager. “It’s not a one-man show,” stressed Smith.
“I’m looking forward to bringing it to St. Paul,” he concluded.
Rodney King starts October 1 and runs through October 11. Visit https://penumbratheatre.org/event/rodney-king for ticket information.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.