The Once and Future King

Review of Rodney King in the International Festival of Arts & Ideas

For the moment, the racist slaying of black church members in Charleston, SC, by a young white man has eclipsed, in news cycles, the wealth of stories of the racist law enforcement tactics of police—some leading to death—in a number of states in the past year. While the events in SC are a horrendous blow, joining the many acts of social and often political violence perpetrated by “lone gunmen” in our national psychosis, the violence against citizens of color, some of them committing criminal acts, some of them not, by our public defenders points up the persistence of what used to be called “institutional racism.” And whenever you invoke the names of Eric Garner or Michael Brown, you might as well begin with Rodney King.

King was, in the words of Roger Guenveur Smith, “the first hero of reality TV” whose bludgeoning by the clubs of the LAPD in 1991 “went viral before viral was invented.” That’s worth saying because the status of King, in U.S. racial history, is due to hand-held personal video equipment and media dissemination. His treatment was not unusual, for uncooperative blacks facing the law in the U.S.; what was unusual was that the beating was filmed, shared, and seen.

Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith

Smith’s words are part of his solo performance piece Rodney King, which closed today at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Smith says he began working on the show when he heard the news of King’s death in 2012, a “second-generation death by drowning drunk” in King’s family (King drowned in his swimming pool; King’s father had drowned drunk in the bathtub). Smith wanted to reflect on why King’s death made him feel, though he had never met the man, like he had lost a brother.

Rodney King presents a dramatic apostrophe to King, addressing him familiarly and knowledgeably, often implicitly questioning King’s decisions and lifestyle—he had been convicted in the past of robbery and assault and battery—while working-in details recounted in his subject’s autobiography. Smith’s almost musical, partially improvised script creates an echo chamber of voices talking about and around and through King’s beating and its aftermath, the LA riots of 1992. In shorthand fashion we hear of the trial of his assailants (acquitted of use of excessive force), and of the destruction and slayings—at least 50 deaths—in the riots afterward, and of the lead-up to and content of King’s famous public statement during the riots, “can we all get along?”

We watch Smith’s emotive performance with fascination, never quite sure which buttons he will push, which taglines from our nation’s hysteria about racial difference and its unease about its racist assumptions will suddenly take on swift new resonance. Gripping as Rodney King is, Smith occasionally over-reaches, his delivery seeming to circle around events as on a loop and making more of some than they merit (such as King’s “incog-negro” visit to the scene where rioters killed someone); at other times he mimics more emotion than he inspires.

Smith’s King is an unassuming, Everyman hero, the kind of person who would never achieve a spotlight through his own efforts. He’s simply a not-so-hard-working guy, enthrall to “the four horsemen,” pot, PCP, coke, and booze. King, it seems, managed to attain his “modest house with swimming pool” by virtue of having survived the “most famous ass-kicking of all time.” Smith is fully aware of the irony of singing King’s praises in this light, and that fact lends a certain jocular affection toward King, and, lest we think that the offense to King was too slight (after all, such logic runs, he lived to tell of it and became famous and was paid millions in damages), Smith includes the story of Latasha Harlins, a minor gunned down after an altercation with a convenience-store owner who believed she was shoplifting a bottle of OJ. Thus, as Smith says emphatically more than once, “it’s not just about you, Rodney.”

 Roger Guenveur Smith in  Rodney King

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King

Which is to say that the riots weren’t “just about” King’s treatment, which occurred less than two weeks before Harlins’ killing, or about the outcomes of the trials of King’s assailants and of Harlins’ killer, but about generations who have endured violence due to race, from the inception of slavery through lynchings and beatings to acts of racist terrorism from the Civil Rights marches to today, nor is Rodney King just about one man and his story. Smith sticks to that story, but makes us feel the history that informs it and the timeliness of its presentation here. King, like some of the family members of those slain in South Carolina last week, seemed inclined to forgive—a Christlike gesture that earns from Smith the phrase “the gospel according to Rodney King”—a stance that met with derision in certain circles, where the incitement to arm and avenge in strong. Whether outraged rapper who wants “to fuck Rodney King in the ass” or shrewd lawyer who wants to make Smith’s appeal to America “huxtable,” Smith lets the voices pass through him, leaving us with a glimpse of King as a man who drowns in a pool, dreaming of surfing and, as he allegedly did before his arrest, giving the finger to the eyes above.

Given the persistence of racial violence in our country, and the widespread, “viral” outbreak of officers caught in the act of killing black persons—Smith gives Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” to King while drowning—Rodney King is searchingly timely. Our era can’t claim any moral high-ground that would let us look back at the events surrounding King from some alleged “post-racial” society. In fact, we might even look back in something like nostalgia for a time when white lawmen descended after a highspeed chase upon a car containing three black men and let them all get out of the car. They beat King senseless, true, but today, in some localities anyway, they would most likely have opened fire the minute the car stopped.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Rodney King
Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith

Sound Design: Marc Anthony Thompson; Lighting Design: José López; Production Management: Kirk Wilson

June 18-20, 2015, 8 pm June 21, 2 pm

Long Wharf Theatre