BWW Reviews: Explosive Solo Performance Piece, RODNEY KING, Plays Woolly Mammoth
Last seen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 1996 in his award-winning solo play A Huey P. Newtown story, Roger Guenveur Smith returns to DC with yet another historical solo piece that's garnered national acclaim. Rodney King explores the night of Mr. King's beating in 1991 as well as the trial and racially-charged uprisings the following year. He puts those events into context what followed for not only Rodney King up until his death in 2012, but the city of Los Angeles and the broader country.
Focusing on how this instance of police brutality captured on video for all to see and the legal aftermath changed the direction of not only Mr. King's life, but also the social landscape of Los Angeles and beyond, Smith approaches the challenging subject matter in a personal way as if he's talking to Rodney King - a physically and emotionally damaged Rodney King who has already experienced all he's experienced. Raising questions about police behavior, race, the media, celebrity and fame as they pertain to that era, Smith gives a "no holds barred" examination of the legacy of that experience. Ending it with the speech Mr. King made himself ("can't we all just get along...") we're reminded of the host of not so different issues that still plague our nation despite the passage of time.
What sets this solo performance apart from others is its improvised yet still very polished quality. Smith - starting the proceedings off with a slew of racial and other slurs - makes it abundantly clear from the outset that he's not out to make the target of his one-way conversation comfortable. Dressed in a simple black t-shirt and using a mixture of what could be labeled poetic and rhythmic speech, he delivers all of his rage-filled thoughts into a microphone alone on a white platform on a bare stage (set design by Jose Lopez) in almost a confrontational "you heard it here first" kind of way. Largely minimal lighting (also Jose Lopez) and sound design (Marc Anthony Thompson) ensures the sole focus is on the highly physical performer and the power of his words.
For a little over an hour, Smith - probably best known to the public for his work on several Spike Lee films (Do the Right Thing, Malcom X, Get on the Bus, He Got Game) and on the HBO series OZ and K Street - doesn't let up, much like the media's video-based coverage of his beating. While at times his deliberate speech patterns and movement choices can become so repetitive that they can lose their emotional impact quickly, one has to give him an immense amount of credit for telling the familiar story in a skillful, gritty and fresh way. What we have here is not a performer who tells us "this is what happened" - because most of us know already - but rather one who asks us, the target of his communication, to internalize its meaning for ourselves.
Perhaps this is best be done - as Smith does - by recalling the unfortunate, horrifying, and senseless death of African American teenager Latasha Harlins just days after Rodney's beating. Shot at a Los Angeles store by a worker when she was just trying to buy orange juice, her killer was left to just serve out some probation and community service with no jail time. During these moments - perhaps the least self-indulgent and performance-like ones of the lot - he explores the simple and heartbreakingly moving story in a way that reminds us that what happened to Rodney and his legacy must be put into a larger framework of intolerance and pre-judgments. A framework, I might add, that is still forming and expanding today.
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
Rodney King plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through July 20, 2014. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.
Photo Credit: Patti McGuire