You might expect tumult from a show that recalls a deadly urban riot. But on opening night, a fierce hush suffused “Rodney King,” the striking, idiosyncratic solo work created by actor, writer and director Roger Guenveur Smith. Remembering the life — public and private — and legacy of King, whose brutal treatment at the hands of the Los Angeles police helped trigger epic violence in the city in 1992, Smith often speaks in a husky voice that’s almost a whisper.
And his quiet intonations — which often take the form of questions directed at the show’s central character (“Right, Rodney?” is a frequent refrain) — find a correlative in his gentle if relentlessly restless movements. Recounting events from King’s biography and chronicling the experience of several riot victims, Smith shifts his weight, bends his knees, churns the air with one hand, clutches his mike with the other, sometimes crouches — as if gauging, and flinching from, an oncoming disaster in a bewildering, slow-motion dream.
It is, deliberately, far from a slick, efficient, pointed distillation of history. Smith does more incantatory invoking than tidy summarizing; rather than beaming a revelatory spotlight into the past, he often seems to be struggling to understand King’s place in the annals of American racial tension. It seems apt when, in brief onstage remarks after the end of “Rodney King” (which is part of the Capital Fringe Festival), Smith asserts that the show “is less a performance than it is a prayer.”
The form of the prayer may vary: “Rodney King” is a largely improvised piece, although according to publicity materials it always opens with quotations from the Willie D. rap song “F--- Rodney King” — arguably a testament to the wellspring of public pain and pent-up anger that the beating of King tapped into. The play ends by channeling the plea King delivered May 1, 1992, in the midst of the riots: “Can we all get along?”
The plea was especially memorable, coming as it did from a man who had been so savagely treated by police officers the previous year — an incident captured on videotape and shared with a TV station by an onlooker. When four officers were subsequently put on trial, all of them were acquitted by a jury that included no African Americans. The verdict touched off the riots, which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people and damage to property amounting to $1 billion. (Marc Anthony Thompson’s sound design, with occasional thudding noises signifying violent blows and an odd montage of crowd clamor and TV news coverage, helps drive home the magnitude of the crisis.)
Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, holding sway on a bare stage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Smith evokes this historical chapter in an oblique, poetic and not always linear way, juxtaposing wrenching details (the smashing of white truck driver Reginald Denny’s skull at the beginning of the riots, for example) and mundane ones (a cap that, as this play tells it, King wore to depict Bob Marley one Halloween) and flashing forward and back in time. Often, the performer carefully and devoutly cites the names and numbers of Los Angeles-area roads, as if the events of the early 1990s had given the thoroughfares sacramental value.
But Smith also highlights irony — recounting, for instance, that during the trial of King’s assailants, a nearby community theater was producing “Driving Miss Daisy,” a play that, in comparison with the judicial proceedings, would have presented a kinder, gentler vision of American race relations. The biggest irony that surfaces is King’s apparent reluctance to become a public figure turned symbol. Speaking of the beaten man’s early life, Smith says, “Rodney King had not yet been invented” — a line that emphasizes the distinction between King the individual (who had recurrent substance-abuse problems and was found dead in his swimming pool in 2012) and King the vessel of civic meaning.
Smith has crafted dramatic pieces around other historical figures: His solo work “A Huey P. Newton Story,” which he brought to Woolly in 1996, was turned into an award-winning telefilm. Some people who attend this new show may find themselves wishing it were less of a prayer and more of a performance — that it more boldly presented a new perspective on King and the riots, rather than doing so much reverent, if wondering, invoking. But if murmurs of heartfelt reaction from the opening-night audience were anything to go by, many theatergoers will find “Rodney King” intensely cathartic and moving.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Set/lighting designer Jose Lopez; production stage manager Kirk Wilson. About one hour.
Tickets $35. Through July 20 at
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company,
641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939