One-man show pays tribute to L.A. riots and the late Rodney King

Barefoot, out of breath and covered in sweat, esteemed actor Roger Guenveur Smith descended the stage in the Redfern Arts Center with Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” ringing eerily across the theater. Smith had just performed his one-man show “Rodney King,” which relives the Los Angeles riots, the politicized life of Rodney King and the public figure’s eventual alcohol-related death that took place in his own swimming pool in 2012. Smith said he looks at the show, which took place on Wednesday, Feb. 17, as “not so much as a performance, but a prayer.”

Keene State College senior and Redfern Arts Ambassador Marisa Benson said she was overall impressed by Smith’s performance.

“The whole play was incredibly personal and layered and the audience could really tell that [Smith] poured all of his energy into it. As a human being, he has connected with Rodney King’s story and made it into something that really impacts others on a visceral level,” Benson said.

Smith explained his deep connection with the play. He said, “I don’t know if I’m losing myself so much as I’m trying to find myself. Loss is interesting because, in this sense, when an actor loses their ego, they connect with another spirit. There are moments in [the show] that I especially connect with and it changes all the time.”

During Smith’s show, the actor combines commemorations of various victims of the 1992 L.A. riots with discussion of Rodney King, whose public beating by police officers incited the overall events. Smith said that during his performance on Wednesday, he especially connected with the riot-related deaths of 18-year-old Edward Song Lee and 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who were both shot by Korean store owners “who mistook [them] as looters.”

KSC senior Jacqueline Kane said she hadn’t heard much about the L.A. riots before seeing Smith’s “Rodney King.”

“It all happened before I was born, so I didn’t really know about Rodney King or how many people lost their lives during the riots,” Kane said, “[this show] taught me a lot about the riots and how horrible it all was and Rodney King’s life. Living on this side of the country and going to a nice school in a nice area here in Keene sometimes shelters us from the reality of these types of events.”

However, Smith said that the city of Keene directly relates to the story of Rodney King. Smith said he was “inspired” by the movie “Lost Boundaries,” which took place in the early 1950s and dealt with a “fair skinned African American family trying to fit in in Keene, New Hampshire.”

“They crossed the color line,” Smith said, “This is a family who lived within the glare of the camera, as did Rodney King. It was a notoriety that they could not outlive.”

Kane explained the terrors of King’s celebrity.

Savannah Hobbs / Equinox Staff

Savannah Hobbs / Equinox Staff

“He was just a regular guy who found himself in a horrible position in the public eye. I think the play really accurately shows Rodney King’s struggles with fame and alcohol and how it was eventually going to crash down,” Kane said.

Benson said the themes behind Smith’s show can directly relate to current issues in police brutality and race relations.

“Not only did we get the opportunity to connect with Rodney King’s unfortunate story, but it’s important to think about what this means publicly with the tension between police officers and African American citizens today. It’s extremely tense and that’s the reality of the world we live in. We need to be talking about it,” Benson said.

Smith said he agrees that his show should bring up feelings about current issues and the Black Lives Matter movement overall.

“Rodney King” has coincidental connections to some of the biggest moments in recent civil rights history.

Smith said that “on opening night in Brooklyn, a year ago in December, it was the evening that Officer Pantaleo was not indicted for the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island. It was a Wednesday, it was opening night. Brooklyn sounded like L.A. There were helicopters and police and noise everywhere.”

Smith explained that after a couple days presenting the opening performances of his show, various members of his team and himself decided to host an “emergency town hall meeting” on the final opening performance.

“We had a substantial conversation, a great discussion,” Smith said, “At the end of the meeting, all of us spontaneously left the theater, went out into freezing weather and stopped traffic on Flatbush Avenue and Fulton. A major intersection in New York City.”

Smith continued, “We had no arrests. We were peaceful, but this was extremely important to us.”

In the end, Kane said she believes the story of Rodney King and the L.A. riots is influential, especially to students today.

Kane said, “Everyone needs to hear this story. Everyone needs to hear why it’s important. I believe that most people have good intentions, but if we really, truly want change then we’re going to have to listen to stories and understand what we can do to help in the future.”

Stephanie McCann can be contacted

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