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'Huey Newton': The Fire Within

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 12, 1996; Page D01

Like an austere sculpture, the three-piece set for "A Huey P. Newton Story," which opened Sunday at Woolly Mammoth, stands isolated in light before the play begins: a mike on a swing rod, a plain wooden chair and one of those big old-fashioned columnar ashtrays with the chrome top and black body. These furnishings suggest several places -- an office, a radio broadcast booth, a talk show set, a police interrogation room and, most disturbingly, a witness box. It isn't until the lights darken and then come up again to reveal Newton (Roger Guenveur Smith) twitching in that chair that we realize we're looking at Hell.

Smith is the author, director, designer, actor and inhabiting spirit of "A Huey P. Newton Story." This is an incarnational performance, in which the actor seems to be calling down forces to possess him and help tell his story. Amazingly handsome, Smith uses his striking, sculptural face like a mask, moving it forward into the light so that the features seem scraped-bone naked, drawing back till his eyes are holes of darkness and his head a living skull. All the while, smoke from a series of cigarettes wreathes around him, sometimes clouding from his mouth in such volume that he seems to be on fire inside.

Smith's Newton is a demon, a dragon, a lost soul, a self-styled freak and a desperately suffering man. Why is he in such agony? Though the play unfolds in a vague "no-time" in which Newton shows a caustic awareness of our current reality, the narrative appears to start at what should have been a victorious point in his life. Public agitation has gotten him released from prison. His dream of empowering the masses has come to pass. "The people freed me," he announces, then adds glumly, "then they expected me to free them."

This Newton has been chewed up and spat out by history. Smith makes it coolly clear that Newton was always, as he himself put it, "a hardhead," a troublemaker who defied his family and was kicked out of school 38 times. But in the mid-'60s, he was in the right place at the right time -- hardheads were what political militancy demanded. Newton spoke and planned and built and posed for a famous poster wearing shades and a beret and carrying a monster gun; he made Malcolm X look like some sort of suited-up businessman. In the end, he came to rest in a penthouse, and when he descended to the streets, to score a little dope, he was shot dead. "I can't be your idol," moans the specter confronting us, "or your icon, or your leader, or your poster boy."

Taking us through this history, Smith is as mesmerizing as a snake. Thoughts and moods flash through his Newton's consciousness too fast to follow. He lures us close, then snaps at us viciously. This guy is on the side of no one in the audience: He hates us all. About halfway through the 70-minute evening, Smith rises and does a private, inward-focused dance to a Bob Dylan song. He jerks as if he's possessed, and sweat flies from him like blood from a boxer in the ring. In the same room with us, he is utterly alone. This is a burning performance, but as the flames of Hell are said to, it burns cold.

In a sense, "A Huey P. Newton Story" is a companion piece to Studio's "Hip 2: The Birth of the Boom." Smith's Newton combusts in the hell that the latter show's Afro Jo is struggling to stay out of. When the lights first come up, he is dry-mouthed before the microphone, admittedly "terrified" to speak. And why not? Who wants to hear his message? As Smith rants and rambles in an eerie impersonation of Newton's high, slurred speech, the audience shifts uneasily. No one who has come to this show is allowed to take any comfort from it. To those who wish to honor and admire Huey the legendary revolutionary, Smith presents a jittery, half-mad wreck. To those who want to dismiss Newton as a crazy thug, he snarls savagely accurate social indictments. It was Martin Luther King Jr. -- a man for whom Newton had no use -- who said, when asked about the emotional volatility of some of his associates, that no one in his right mind would dare to defy the laws of his country. The terrifying thing about the man Smith has created is that he's mad and he's right.

A Huey P. Newton Story, created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith.
Live sound design, Marc Anthony Thompson.
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Dec. 6. Call 202-393-3939.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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