Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

The Brilliance Of Roger Guenveur Smith's Rodney King

Protesters at rally One-man/one-woman shows have a very clear-cut likability metric for me: Either I love them or I hate them. It's no middle ground.
Protesters at rally
Protesters at rally

One-man/one-woman shows have a very clear-cut likability metric for me: Either I love them or I hate them. It's no middle ground.

Either you're super engaging and engulf me in the performance, or I'm sitting in the theatre, trying to remember if I locked the door and turned the stove off before I left the house (I normally do).

Nelson George conducting a post-show artist talk with Roger Guenveur
Writer/Producer Nelson George conducting a post-show artist talk with Roger Guenveur

With that in mind, it was quite a treasure to experience the one-man performance, Rodney King, by Roger Guenveur Smith, at the BRIC arts building in Fort Greene on Thursday, December 4, 2014. It was a triumphant performance and the Q & A after, led by Nelson George, along with Mr. Guenveur's mingling with theatergoers, made the evening super comfortable and formed a community of like minds, all aware that they were entertained by a very tragic story that is ripe with a gross showing of man's inhumanity.

Roger working the room, post-show

My initial thought was on the timeliness of the production, as the nation is rife with strife, stemming from the police and their seemingly unindictable, shooting of unarmed black men, which would be labeled murder if the killer wasn't a cop.

Unfortunately, my mind quickly negated that idea, since the cops have been beating and murdering black men since the invention of America, and hence the Rodney King play, tragically, is inherently apropos in the United States. The cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in Staten Island, NY, are dominating news streams and the twitter-sphere, and the blow-back from the no indictment decisions, handed down from the grand juries, pales in comparison to the Rodney King verdict, which resulted in a full scale riot in South Central, Los Angeles.

Roger working the room

Rodney King was the "first reality star" and Mr. Guenveur's treatment of the the man, his abuse by the L.A. police and his death, on Father's Day, 2012, is thoughtfully explored and delivered with passion and insight, while also humanizing the Rodney King meme. The entire production is a few minutes short of an hour and was so riveting that I returned to have a talk with Roger and catch the final performance of Rodney King, on Sunday, December 7, though the night turned out to be far more than just the performance.

The play is germane to the national conversation about police brutality and part of its power lies in its ability to highlight that conversation, while dramatizing the continuum of police violence against black and brown men. But what made the night truly amazing is what happened after the performance:


Unbeknownst to me, there was a post-show, town hall meeting planned where Roger invited a distinguished panel of guest, to talk about the Rodney King play, the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases and the over-arching need to clarify to the police department, halls of justice, political institutions and America at large, that #BlackLivesMatter.

* Roger Guenveur Smith (Do The Right Thing, A Huey P. Newton Story)
* Lumumba Bandele (Malcolm X Grassroots Movement)
* Alex Vitale (Criminal Justice/Sociology Prof at Brooklyn College)
* Carla Murphy (Journalist, Colorlines/ Race Forward)

It was a spirited discussion of the topics, skillfully moderated by Brian Vines, producer at BRIC, who also opened the mic to the floor for people to toss questions at the panel.

City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo was resolute that the city needs to apply the broken windows theories to physical structures and not people, and was particular that NYCHA needs to get its act together. The death of AKai Gurley, in the Louis Pink Houses, a Brooklyn public housing development in East New York, was at the hands of rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang, but Ms. Cumbo feels his death was partially designed by the environment.

Broken elevators and door locks, non-working intercom systems, rubbish strewn building fronts and dark hallways are all ingredients to cook up an environment of crime, which adds to the element of danger in housing projects. It was the reason that Mr. Gurley was using the pitch black stairway instead of the elevator, and why the pair of NYPD officers was conducting a vertical patrol, as a policing technique, which, in a pitch-black staircase, can easily have a tragic outcome. The Town Hall Meeting was a unified feeling that changes have to be made and that the changes have to be substantive and begin now.

After the Town Hall Meeting, something amazing happened as the positive and active energy in the room turned into an impromptu protest, with Roger Guenveur leading the protestors down to the corner of Fulton St. and Flatbush Ave,, where protesters blocked traffic, shouted slogans like #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot.

Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo
Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo
Community activist and educator, Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele, leading the protest
Protesters on Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn
Protesters on Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn
Protestor with Black Panther's sign on his jacket, faces the police
Protestor catching it all on a smartphone

DSC00906So a night that began as a play, and then morphed into a town hall meeting and then transformed into a protest, was a unique and powerful experience.

It showed the symbiotic relationship between art and activism.


A note about commenting:

If you had a commenting account prior to Feb. 14, 2023, you will need to register for a new account before commenting. Click here or start to leave a comment to start the registration process.