Against a black background and on a square white platform within a larger stage, Roger Guenveur Smith put everything he had in Rodney King, a one-man play which opened Thursday night at Penumbra Theatre for a 11-show run.
Smith wrote the play, and superbly transformed the late King beyond a one-dimensional character who took a beating by the hands of L.A. police officers, and famously asked “Can we all just get along?” to help upend the L.A. riots after the officers were acquitted of all charges.
There was never a slow moment in the show, which started with an audio montage of sound bites, circa 1991-92, expertly produced and presented by Sound Designer Marc Anthony Thompson. Then the award-winning actor literally sneaked on stage unbeknownst to the nearly packed opening night crowd, alternating from rage to poetic language, to draw parallels to what’s happening today.
Smith smartly told us what really happened that fateful night of 1991, when King and his brother drove home from a night of hanging with friends. That infamous police stop, not only changed King forever, but because of a bystander’s video camera, made the man “our first reality star,” noted Smith during the performance.
“We have to start living by the gospel of Rodney King,” said Smith afterwards in a brief MSR interview. “This was a guy who was brain damaged [after his beating at the hands of police officers], who had seen people die in his name, and was able to reach deep into his humanity — that will resonate for the ages. I think we need a revolution of conscience.”
The MSR also talked to several patrons as they left the theater after the performance.
“It was powerful. I enjoyed every minute of it,” said U-M Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Katrice Albert.
Mignon Reed, Oakland, Calif., said, “I thought the show was unique and it was honest.” She added that Smith “well-researched” his subject and “was physical…[and] expanded the idea on police brutality.”
She continued, “He did an enormous amount of research, and it is very detailed and enlightening. This could be an amazing addition to American theatre. It was really an awesome show.”
“I think it was more than a play,” added Erin Washington of Oakland, Calif., who told the MSR she’d seen Rodney King when it opened in New York. “To see it again, and see how he has responded to things that have happened. I thought the play was chilling.”
“Roger is a very powerful actor. I’ve seen him in many movies, and to be able to see him in a one-man show was an experience of a lifetime,” added Albert.
She and Reed both gave their thumbs-up to Rodney King. Reed said the show should be seen “regardless of race and culture, background or gender.”
“I encourage everyone to come to this production before October 11 because he won’t be here October 12,” concluded Albert.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.