In rap-inflected couplets, the actor-writer tells the story of Rodney King’s savage beating and the riots that followed. He’ll be performing the piece March 24-26 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
Roger Guenveur Smith is a compelling actor-writer known for his appearances in Spike Lee movies and his solo bio-plays about complex black public figures: Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, baseball player Juan Marichal, writer and social reformer Frederick Douglass.
On March 24-26, Smith will perform his latest stage piece, “Rodney King,” at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, presented by Seattle Theatre Group. If King’s name doesn’t ring a bell, know this: A quarter-century ago, he was at the center of an incident that sparked six days of full-on rioting in Los Angeles, leaving 55 dead and vaulting police brutality into the spotlight.
In rap-inflected couplets, Smith tells the story: On March 3, 1991, after a high-speed chase, a drunken, unarmed, 25-year old King was pulled from his car by Los Angeles police officers and savagely beaten. He was left with skull fractures, a broken eye socket, brain and nerve damage. A bystander videotaped the assault, and long before digital social media, the tape went viral on news broadcasts around the world.
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (March 24-26) at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle; $25 (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org).
After four white officers were acquitted of assault charges, for a beating millions by then had observed, black neighborhoods in L.A. erupted.
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It all seems chillingly prophetic now, given more recent instances of taped police brutality that have led to mass protests. But Smith’s show goes beyond the headlines to delve into the famous, haunting question posed by King during the L.A. rioting: “Can’t we just get along?”
The play also probes the troubled life of an alcoholic and drug user, an itinerant laborer who went on to have more brushes with the law. Thrust uncomfortably into the public eye, King went sober via the reality TV series “Celebrity Rehab,” and wrote a candid memoir, “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption.”
“I had to learn to forgive,” King told an interviewer. “No one wants to be mad in their own house. I didn’t want to be angry my whole life.”
But his demons got the best of him. And after King drowned in his swimming pool in 2012, apparently after a drug-induced heart attack, Smith “felt as if I’d lost a blood brother,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I wanted to know why he mattered so much to me, and in such a personal way.”