Under the Radar: Rodney King

by Sergei Burbank · January 10, 2014

Playwrights on New Plays #27 Sergei Burbank looks at Rodney King part of the Under the Radar Festival Rodney King, a one-man performance piece-cum-prose poem written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, is a languid and psychedelic exhumation of Rodney King as crime, media event, and tragic human life. The play is a monologue addressed directly to Rodney King -- or, more appropriately, “Rodney King,” as Smith is keen to point out that our received historical King is a construct, a fictional character created in the popular imagination through a series of chaotic events the unfolded on a road in Los Angeles in 1991. Smith’s narrative unfolds chronologically, following King into his car, into his confrontation with the police, and then joins him as a mute witness to his attacking officers’ initial acquittal and the carnage of the ensuing Los Angeles riots. While the piece follows the thread of King’s life to its end decades after he had receded from the public eye, the lion’s share of the action is focused on the events of more than two decades ago.

This production takes its time: the audience is greeted by a white square populated only by a seemingly-abandoned microphone, coiled provocatively across the blank space. The familiar cues to indicate the beginning of a performance are followed by a very long introduction to the world of the play via soundscape -- a fitting choice, given that Smith’s only tools at hand include sounds and words, coupled with an undulating, almost aquatic movement within his confined space that underpins his thematic connection between King, his subject / object, and water.

It is through such counter-intuitive connections that Smith’s “text” (more than most productions, it seems a misnomer to refer to a text, as the evening is, more than anything, an experience, a collection of sensory impressions) draws connections from both King’s personal history and the various lives that were irrevocably changed or lost in the maelstrom of violence that engulfed much of Los Angeles in 1992. The history of Rodney King and the Los Angeles Riots are of course a history that includes topics of race, class, and police violence; but Rodney King is neither an informative lecture nor a polemic diatribe: it is an active, roiling meditation on a collective open wound, on the infliction of pain and its lingering effects, and on the decades of suffering that encompassed Rodney King’s life (the real and perennially damaged human being, not the abstract “Rodney King” of popular imagination) between 1991/1992 and his death in 2012.

Marc Anthony Thompson’s sound design is complex and immersive, and lighting designer José López’s decision to restrict the box in which Smith moves was complemented by a willingness to allow Smith to play moments in near-darkness -- a compelling and unusual choice.

The lyrical undulations of Smith’s non-stop performance ably carry the evening, and unusually for the format, he acts past his audience rather than in direct contact with them -- a solid choice, as the audience I shared the house with was one which found quite unfunny lines inexplicably titter-worthy. The performance name-checks the late Amiri Baraka, and as this specific evening occurred the same day Baraka’s death was announced, it added a poignancy to the proceedings, as the artist’s influence was one that Smith obviously felt quite personally -- a remarkable moment, and a coincidence that evinces the unpredictability and immutability of a live theater event.

While Smith does not shy from a controversial, confrontational tone, his mindfulness of holding live dynamite as source material is clear. In a moment that stands out as the strongest argument for his restraint and skill as a dramatist, Smith performs verbatim the entirety of King’s public plea for an end to the violence -- the only moment of the evening where he drops the artifice of performative slam-poet cadences and instead inhabits the shell of a broken, terrified man struck almost dumb by the cataclysm that has devoured his city -- perversely, in his name. Having woven an hour’s worth of poetic words from Rodney King’s life, it is Smith’s choice to allow the man’s inartful but heartfelt plea to stand for itself --  that attests to the power and ambition of this work.





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