Review: Rodney King at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center Theater

Roger Guenveur Smith’s One-Man Show Traces Life of Police-Brutality Victim

Roger Guenveur Smith
Courtesy Photo

In an uncanny prediction of the new media era about to begin, George Holliday’s raw home video of the savage 1991 police beating of Rodney King went viral without the benefit of YouTube, and before common use of the World Wide Web. Without what became known as “the Rodney King video,” the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of King’s attackers would never have happened. On its own, it is all too likely that King’s victimization would have vanished into the vast shadow of racial injustice, where so much of American violence hides. But this time, that didn’t happen. Instead, through the video, that act of violence against King eventually became a flash point for action on an unprecedented scale. When South Los Angeles went up in flames in the spring of 1992, it became clear that the international media’s compulsive rebroadcast of that footage had affected the course of history.

Fans of Spike Lee’s films would recognize the actor Roger Guenveur Smith instantly, and followers of theatrical solo performance wouldn’t think of missing a chance to see him live. His award-winning solo show A Huey P. Newton Story set the pattern for the work he continues to do; concentrated historical research is the basis for Smith’s physically demanding, intensely personal form of theatrical improvisation. Accompanied by some dynamic lighting cues and the densely layered sound collages of his longtime collaborator composer Marc Anthony Thompson, the actor dives headfirst into the murky waters of King’s conflicted life and the deep end of his untimely death. It’s a great performance, rich in detail and nuance, yet as direct as a punch in the face. Rodney King may not be anyone’s idea of a hero, but he’s a protagonist to be reckoned with, and his story as told by Smith resonates profoundly today.

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