Los Angeles Times

‘Rodney King’ without artifice

Roger Guenveur Smith brings his one-man study to a Netflix audience, with help from Spike Lee.

- By Steven Zeitchik

Roger Guenveur Smith recalled that he had a deeply emotion reaction when he heard Rodney King had died in 2012. And he couldn’t understand why.

“Here is someone I didn’t even know, had never met,” the actor and monologuis­t said. “I kept asking, ‘Why did his death affect me so much?’ ”

The answer isn’t simple. But Smith has long been trying to figure out just what has been so compelling about King. He began seven years ago, when the victim of police brutality was alive, and explores the question from complex facets in his one-man show “Rodney King.”

Smith was speaking by phone from Portland, Ore. After nearly five years of serious road time, he was just a few minutes away from taking the stage for the last-ever performanc­e of his searing piece. (He gave it one final go-round at Los Angeles’ Bootleg Theater, where he’d workshoppe­d it years ago, in March.)

Thanks to Netflix, though, “Rodney King ” will live on — and be available to a much wider audience than the people that since 2012 have packed small theaters around the country to see it. Spike Lee shot a performanc­e in New York one recent summer, applying Spike-ian directoria­l touches, and Netflix began streaming it last Friday to coincide with the 25th anniversar­y of the L.A. Riots.

As television prepares to mark those dark days with sweeping historical pieces, “Rodney King” goes the other way: It asks, in ways journalist­ic and imagined, who the man at the center of it all really was. King does serve here as a kind of blank slate for our notions of victimhood, resistance and harmony. But he also transcends all of those things.

“We don’t want to make Rodney King a symbol of the oppressed black man,” Smith said. “We want to portray him as a human being — a man who loved to fish, a man who was listening to De La Soul when

he was pulled over, a man who was a second-generation alcoholic drowning victim.”

Smith’s piece is a grounded depiction, rich in unexpected detail: the Bob Marley wig he donned to observe the riots incognito; the father who alternatel­y bonded with and beat him; that he actually knew Reginald Denny, the white truck driver nearly killed in the riots, from a moment they shared at a constructi­on site.

Smith delivers the material sweatily, breathily, pulsatingl­y, with a musicality to his voice and a meter to his patter. (“You wanna reminisce / it goes something like this / 91, 92 / Come on, Rodney King, you know what to do / It was a Saturday night / Right? / And you were chilling at your boy’s crib watching the fight.”)

The tone can go from confrontat­ional to plaintive and back again. Smith starts with an invocation of the Geto Boys’ accusation of the subject as an Uncle Tom (“… Rodney King”) — unattribut­ed to throw us off balance — and ends by recounting, in its entirety, the beautiful tentativen­ess of King’s landmark speech (”People, I just, I just want to say, you know, can we, can we all get along?”).

In between, in segments he’s improvised and honed over the years — years in which King’s legacy loomed over high-profile incidents of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement — Smith explores the man himself. The performer is often filling in the details of King’s life, challengin­g and provoking him, but really, challengin­g and provoking the many assumption­s we’ve made about him, his reduction into a symbol.

“Rodney King was not somebody who tried to be somebody he was not,” Smith said. “They tried to give him courses in black history; they wanted him to be a spokespers­on. But he was a spokespers­on for nothing but his own agenda.”

The filmmaker and performer had teamed on nine projects, including “Do the Right thing” and “Malcolm X.” In the mid-1990s they also worked on Smith’s one-man show “Huey P. Newton.”

“What Roger is doing, like Mark Twain and many of our best storytelle­rs, is humanizing someone who’s been made into a demon, an animal, into less of a human being,” Lee explained. The director shot the piece with more than a dozen cameras, often going close-in on the performer, sometimes trailing down his body to match a point Smith was making. At the end the lens pulls back on Smith, giving a sense of both loneliness and cosmic-ness.

Because of its tone, “Rodney King” can have an odd effect. One can feel provoked and placated, unsettled and in harmony — often at the same time.

This, Smith said, is by design. “The audience is alternativ­ely seduced and indicted. Is it an angry piece or a conciliato­ry piece? Those are cliches.”

Right before March’s Bootleg performanc­e, Smith heard from Juan King, asking if he could get a ticket to see the show. Rodney King’s brother had a dramatic back story in his own right, and the request reminded Smith of all the tales that have gone untold.

“Rodney King was without artifice, without pretense,” Smith said. “In him I have — the audience has — recognized someone we know.”

 ?? Peter Foley European Pressphoto Agency ?? FREQUENT collaborat­ors actor Roger Guenveur Smith, left, and director Spike Lee bring Smith’s “Rodney King” to Netf lix.
Peter Foley European Pressphoto Agency FREQUENT collaborat­ors actor Roger Guenveur Smith, left, and director Spike Lee bring Smith’s “Rodney King” to Netf lix.
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Netf lix

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