Actor and solo performer Roger Guenveur Smithlikes his topics hot. His one-man stage shows include “A Huey P. Newton Story” and “Frederick Douglass Now,” while his screen credits include Spike Lee joints (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus”) and Steven Soderbergh’s “K Street,” the D.C. insider drama that came and went on HBO a decade before “House of Cards” and “Scandal” turned dirty politics into guilty chic TV.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for the next two weeks with his solo show “Rodney King,” an exploration of the man whose videotaped beating by the Los Angeles police led to riots when the officers were acquitted — a moment that famously gave the culture King’s “Can we all get along?”
“Another occasion to extol the magnificence of Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo wizardry,” the Los Angeles Times wrote last fall of Smith’s “Rodney King.” “Nearly as impassioned and insightful as ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,’ ” the New York Times declared in January. Smith has already toured the show from Los Angeles to New York and Amsterdam. Early this week, he explained why historical figures such as Rodney King — a troubled figure with addiction problems who in 2012 was found dead in his swimming pool, shortly after the publication of his book “The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption” — keep catching his attention.
Q. Why Rodney King now?
A. I had referenced Rodney King for 20 years in my work, but I’d never met him. I didn’t know him. His loss was a mystery I wanted to go about unraveling. So it was a series of questions I started asking on stage of the Bootleg Theater, my home theater in Los Angeles. It was just weeks after Rodney King passed that I started this work.
I maintained the perspective of the outsider. Unlike “A Huey P. Newton Story” or “John and Juan” [about the famous incident between baseball players Juan Marichal, who clubbed John Roseboro with a bat], I didn’t try to investigate Rodney King from the inside out. I didn’t interview family or friends. I depended on what most of us depend on these days, the Internet, to get a sense of this man. Eventually the autopsy report emerged, and I was able to reference that as well.
Q. How did you get interested in performing history?
A. I have had an ongoing interest in history and biography. As a child I read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun. My mom had a two-volume set called “The World’s Great Men of Color,” and I was kind of obsessed with that book. We also had Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative Life,” and that became my first solo performance.
Q. 1965, 1992: those two L.A. riots were particularly influential for you?
A. I was born in Berkeley, but I grew up in L.A., and the ’65 and ’92 riots are a kind of bracketing of my childhood and younger adulthood. “Juan and John,” that happened in ’65. I had just witnessed Western Avenue, which is where my parents’ business was, go up in flames. And the next week I was watching the Dodgers and Giants on TV, and I saw Juan Marichal hit John Roseboro, one of my heroes, with a baseball bat. I took Marichal’s baseball card out of my collection and burned it. I chanted, “Burn, baby, burn,” exactly what I’d heard on the streets.
For along time I’ve been referencing Mr. King — but never in a comedic fashion. . . . Rodney King’s speech is one of the great American speeches, delivered May Day 1992, and it stopped a riot. And it came from a man who was not trained as a public speaker, who was brain damaged, who had the woeful experience of sitting through a trial and having to witness those four officers being acquitted. He responded with an improvised, extemporaneous speech. With the pauses and ellipses and its kind of fractured sense, it remains one of the great American speeches.
Q. At Yale you studied history, then drama?
A. I thought that I might pursue a PhD in History. That’s how I entered Yale. On a lark I auditioned for the school of drama.
Q. What are you looking for when you choose your subjects for shows?
A. In drama we’re looking for conflict, right? And if we’re doing a solo show, that conflict is within the solo character. I certainly found it in Huey P. Newton. He was full of contradictions and a very ripe subject for dramatic exploration. With “Rodney King,” it is not so much Roger-as-Rodney King. Although I do his speech in its entirety, I also do a rap which is very much anti-Rodney King, but in between is an improvised series of questions. I pose as someone who is truly interested and intrigued by the course of this man’s life and untimely demise.
created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Through July 20 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net