It will always be a jarring thing to witness: a violation of rights on a visual loop, shot on a shaky cell phone, uploaded and played in every corner of the Internet and broadcast on 24-hour news channels in perpetuity. It has become the new normal for some to immediately reach for a cell phone to document interactions between police officers and citizens in case police encounters deviate towards violence.
But before the 1991 footage of Rodney King’s violent and brutal encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), footage of police brutality was not expected in the mainstream news cycle.
The beating was recorded from a nearby balcony by Argentinian immigrant George Holliday. After being stopped for speeding, King was tased and hounded by a group of LAPD officers with batons. King’s encounter was national news after Holliday brought footage to the media. Subsequent trials, and the acquittal of the officers involved, caused an eruption of protests on the streets of Los Angeles and across the country.
The riots influenced many aspects of culture, including pop culture. It seeped into films, books and music — and is now being revisited on stage with “Rodney King: Roger Guenveur Smith,” presented by Seattle Theatre Group from March 24 through 26.
In a lilting monologue performed with just a mic on a bright floor, Roger Guenveur Smith retells the story of King’s life in a one-man show by beautifully weaving narrative and history together in an emotional and dynamic performance. Smith gathered information by assembling pieces of King through the media and documents, rather than interviewing those close to the late King.
Despite this, it is clear that Smith goes beyond the mainstream version of King’s story. Smith speaks to the music King listened to and childhood experiences drawn from his biography. These go beyond the traumatic event of 1991 to paint the picture of the whole man behind the significant moment in civil rights history.
Smith, a graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama, is most known for his roles in 2007’s “American Gangster” and a variety of Spike Lee films, such as “Do the Right Thing” and “Poetic Justice.” This is not the first time that Smith has performed a politically charged performance narrating another man’s life: He won numerous awards, including the Obie award (for Off-Broadway productions) in 1997 for his production “A Huey P. Newton Story.” The solo performance, which detailed the life of the Black Panther Party cofounder, was filmed by Lee in 2001.
For those born after 1991, the story of King may not be as shocking today as it was then. A devastating and growing list of names joins King’s: Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and more. Smith’s “Rodney King” performance is an important reminder to continue analyzing racial dynamics in the country — and a reminder to not forget the stories and names of the people whose deaths, recorded or not, have fueled the national resurgence of the movement for racial equity.
What: Rodney King: Roger Guenveur Smith | Where: Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute | When: March 24 – 26, visit langstoninstitute.org for times