Roger Guenveur Smith did not think he’d still be performing “Rodney King,” his one-man show, in 2016.
“I thought initially it would be a very short-term memorial,” the actor, playwright and artist said. “A prayer is what we called it on some occasions, meditating on the loss of Rodney King, but for all kinds of reasons, the show has continued to resonate around the world.”
Indeed, with police brutality in the headlines for the last few years, the story of the Los Angeles motorist, taken from his car and beaten by four cops in 1991, remains as resonant as ever. And Smith’s ruminations on the tragedy, the man and the environment from which he came, now almost exactly four years old, still feel timely.
amNY caught up with Smith in advance of his SummerStage performance in East River Park.
Why dedicate a show to Rodney King?
When I opened my laptop on that Father’s Day [King died on June 17, 2012] and saw that he had expired, and the way he had expired, I was exceedingly moved. I didn’t know him personally, never met him, but the feeling of loss was a tremendous one, and I think it was a sincere one. I wanted to know: Why did Rodney King matter to me? And why, by extension, would he matter to a potential audience? And I had no idea that my potential audience would be an international one. I had thought that it would be a very modest meditation for that season of mourning, but it’s expanded in tragic ways.
Has performing this show given you any insight, any new thoughts about police brutality?
The piece isn’t just about police brutality — it’s about brutality, the result of that ongoing action of violence. Rodney King had to live with 50-some-odd people losing their lives in his name, and he watched it on TV with the rest of us. He had to absorb that, to live with that the rest of his life. I think that was the great weight that took him to the bottom of his swimming pool. It’s a great weight that our city, our country, our world has had to absorb.
King is often quoted as saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” but he never actually did. He said, “Can we all get along?”
And even more importantly, at the end of the speech, Rodney King answers his own question, and says, “Yes we can! We can get along.”
How important was him not using the word “just”?
It’s important, and I always point that out when people misquote him. And he does not end on a negative, he ends on a hopeful note, that we can work it out. This is a man who was brain damaged, who was drunk, who was in the hot glare of the spotlight, on a hot day in May wearing a bulletproof vest, a sweater and a tie. He had just stood in a courtroom and heard “not guilty” resonate four times for people the entire world had seen beat him on videotape. He had to go home and turn on his TV set like the rest of us and watch people dying in his name. It’s a pretty remarkable [speech] for a man who never graduated high school to pull off.