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Rodney King
Penumbra Theatre

Also see Arty's reviews of The Events, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Murder for Two

Roger Guenveur Smith
Rodney King is a one man tour de force that revisits the debacle that was Rodney King: the beating he suffered at the hands of members of the Los Angeles Police Department, captured on video tape and seen round the world, and the spring 1992 riots that broke out in Los Angeles and elsewhere upon the acquittal of the officers involved. Written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, Rodney King is Penumbra's season opener and this year's entry in their on-going Claude Edison Purdy Festival of Individual Artists.

King, a 26-year-old African American, was driving after consuming more than the legal limit of alcohol and was pursued in a high speed chase by an LAPD police car, tracked overhead by a helicopter. He gave chase trying to avoid charges of driving under the influence, as that would violate his parole for a prior conviction for robbery, though Smith contends King was not actually guilty of that crime. King resisted arrest, leading to the beating, caught on tape by an onlooker who brought the video first to the police, and when they expressed no interest, to a local news outlet.

Over a year later, a jury—composed of ten whites, one Hispanic, and one Asian—acquitted three of the four police officers who had beaten King. Given the evidence contained in the video, this was decried as a complete miscarriage of justice, and led to brutal riots, causing 53 deaths, thousands of injuries, more than 7,000 fires, and over a billion dollars in property damage. King himself went on television after a few days and called on the black community to cease rioting, repeating the phrase "Can we all get along?" and pointing to the hardship the riots were having, especially on old people and children.

Smith does not play the part of Rodney King, or any other specific person involved in these incidents. Instead, Smith plays himself, his wondrously resonant voice speaking to King, various police officers, the judge, the medical team that performed an autopsy on King after his 2012 death by drowning under the influence of drugs—and to the various communities that were part of this drama. Smith is the voice of conscience, calling on one and all to step up to the responsibility they had for this tragedy.

Using rap, poetry, recitation, song, and movement, Smith creates a full picture of the man Rodney King was—his childhood, working in the family cleaning business, his interest in such unlikely pastimes as surfing and skiing, and his serious flaws—depicting King's addictions to alcohol and drugs and his tendency to exercise poor judgement, his appearance at the riots (which he first saw first-hand dressed in a Bob Marley wig leftover from a Halloween party), and his life's end, drowned in the pool of the house purchased with the cash settlement he eventually received from the City of Los Angeles.

Smith is certainly unabashed in describing the hostility of the police, giving chilling accounts of every blow King received. Smith brings us through the trial that sparked the riots, with an edge as sharp as razor wire. The riots are vividly described, a contagion of anger and fear setting neighbor against neighbor, with tales of innocent people shot for fear that they were looters in a city ablaze in paranoia and hatred.

Smith composed his work with great intelligence, making every word count. He uses repetition of phrases to powerful effect. He makes remarkable use of his voice, at times a whisper, at other times a growl, sometimes invoking a sexual pulse, other times a militant authority. His body is similarly agile, giving physical form to King's state of mind and to uncontrolled passions of police and community. With only a microphone as a prop, Smith creates a vivid image of what transpired before, during, and after the beating, trial, and riots. Perhaps we don't gain access to all the data, to every episode of note, but we certainly attain a full awareness of what was being felt.

Rodney King is played out on a simple platform with a square of bright light setting boundaries for Smith's work, as if confining him to a cell. The inventive soundtrack created by Marc Anthony Thompson, uses music, overlays of rioters voicing their grievances, of others condemning the riots, sound bites from news media, police sirens, helicopter whip-whips, and the gurgle of air bubbles underwater, as a constant backdrop to Smith's performance.

Rodney King is subtitled Where is the Love ... 20 Years Later?. It was written and first performed before the racially charged riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere, so it foretells, rather than responds to these most recent demonstrations of our nation's continuing struggle to live up to our stated ideals. Twenty years later, the over reach of the law against Rodney King and the riots that followed did not provide a great national lesson that moved forward. As a history piece, Roger Guenveur Smith has created a dazzling work of art. As a status report illuminating our current national well-being, it is a clarion call.

Rodney King continues through October 11, 2015, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are $25.00, $20 for seniors; $15 for college/university students with valid ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to

Writer: Roger Guenveur Smith; Lighting Designer: Jose Lopez; Penumbra Lighting Designer: Sarah Brandner; Sound Designer: Marc Anthony Thompson; Touring Production Manager: Kirk Wilson; Penumbra Production Manager: Allen Weeks

Cast: Roger Guenveur Smith

Rodney King is presented as part of the Claude Edison Purdy Individual Artist Festival by Penumbra Theatre Company, Lou Bellamy and Sarah Bellamy, Co-Artistic Directors.

Photo: Patti McGuire

- Arthur Dorman

Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region

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