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BWW Review: Artists Rep's Frontier Series Ends with Gripping Contemplation of RODNEY KING


I remember seeing the video of Rodney King being beaten by L.A. police officers. I was 13, living a sheltered suburban life. I remember having no idea what to make of it. Police officers were the good guys, right? I think it was the first time I realized that there was a huge disconnect between my world and the world in which many other people lived.

In watching Rodney KING, the last show in Artists Repertory Theatre's groundbreaking Frontier Series, I kept thinking about how much things have, and have not, changed. As a country, we were appalled to watch four white police officers beat a black man within an inch of his life. Years later, we were appalled when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. We were really appalled when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland. We've had a lot of practice at being appalled.

But in Rodney KING, playwright and performer Roger Guenveur Smith, doesn't let us off the hook that easily. This play, which tells King's story from the police encounter through the end of his life, demands much more. For about 60 minutes, Smith challenges the audience to think deeply not just about the incident, but about the symbol King became and what that symbol may or may not mean today. His delivery is a driving, hypnotic cadence that flows over you in waves. It's less like a play and more like a poem.

I've never been so uncomfortable in a theatre as I was watching this performance. Although I was sitting in the back row, well out of the lights, I had the sensation that, at any moment, Smith would look to me and say, "Krista, what are you going to about all of this?" I felt that Smith was holding each and every one of us personally accountable for deciding enough is enough. We can't just keep being appalled. We have to do something about it. I'm not sure yet what that will be for me, but I hope that if we each do one small thing, we can find our way to a future where we can all get along, like King asked us to do so many years ago.

Rodney KING is one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I've had the opportunity to experience. I'm sorry that by the time you read this, the lights will have gone down on the last performance because it's the type of show that should be seen by as many people as possible.

Fortunately, you can catch a film version of it directed by Spike Lee, which is set to be released on Netflix this Friday, April 28. For a sneak peek, check out Roger Guenveur Smith doing an excerpt from the show for the New York Times: In Performance series.

Learn more about Artists Rep and the Frontier Series here.

Photo credit: Patti McGuire

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