This video is pretty disturbing. But if you’re unfamiliar with the Rodney King story, you should probably watch it.
In 1991, after being pulled over for reckless driving and x-treme speeding (100 mph +) King got out of his car and flashed the finger at a police helicopter flying overhead. For this, police hit him fifty-six times with a metal baton, and also shot him with a stun gun.
The astonishing thing about all this is that George Holliday, who lived in a nearby condominium, caught the whole thing on a video which subsequently played on a local TV station. The link above leads you to a few of the most dramatic moments in that video.
The cops involved in the beating were indicted. The presiding judge moved the trial to the suburbs, and an all-white jury acquitted them. The city rioted, and why not? For years African-Americans had complained about police brutality, particularly in LA. If this video wasn’t proof, what would be?
Rodney King is the story of a remarkable thing that happened to a totally unremarkable man, and Roger Guenveur Smith, the piece’s creator and sole performer, gives it full voice. He opens with Will G’s assaultive rap, “Fuck Rodney King.” Will G. wanted to fuck Rodney because Rodney wasn’t sufficiently angry about his treatment. Rodney, instead, was prepared to forgive his tormentors, and to live in harmony with his Caucasian neighbors.
But King, as Smith makes abundantly clear, had reason to understand the sins in others because he was himself a sinner. A chronic drunk, he admittedly drove at high speeds because he was certain of a DWI arrest, which would violate the terms of the parole he was on after his conviction for assault and robbery. And he was, as Smith acknowledges, a bad husband and a bad father.
Smith’s approach to his subject is indirect, and all the more powerful for its indirectness. He calls it a “post-mortem interview” with his subject, and I can’t come up with a better term. He takes us from the fierce anger of Will G’s rap to the surprising sweetness of King’s early life. King was known as “Glen” in those days, before he became famous. His mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, would take him with her when she distributed The Watchtower, and his father – the “Kingfisher” – would take him fishing.
Smith prowls around the Woolly Mammoth stage like a panther looking for an opening, dancing from the very back of the stage to the front, as though he intends to move into the audience and conduct his interview from there. His words are rhythmic and interspersed with internal rhyme; with a percussion line they could be rap too. But he uses this mode only when it is useful to him; there are long passages of simple narrative, delivered in his own voice, sepulcher and grim.
King, notwithstanding his wastage of his own body, was a big, athletic guy – a six-two, two twenty-five construction worker. His excellent physical condition may explain why he was able to crawl to his knees after repeated beatings (the officers said they thought he was on PCP) and why he was able to recover from his wounds. Smith, too, is thick and powerfully built, and moves with great agility. At only one point, however, does he attempt to be King on stage.
Smith takes King’s claims at face value, including that he was innocent of the assault and robbery charges and that his skull had been fractured in eleven places (the hospital reported only a facial fracture and a broken ankle). He occasionally employs cheap political shots. (At one point he refers to “the Ronald Reagan li—”drawing the syllable out, grinning slyly at us, “—brary.”) But in general his perspective is broad and holistic. The most agonizing part of the monologue is where he describes the riots: the beating of the white truck driver Reginald Denny (King knew him) with a cinderblock (according to Smith, an African-American truck driver drove into the heart of the riots and saved his life); and the grief of an entrepreneur (presumptively African-American) who lost everything in the riots.
Did Rodney King ever receive justice? Not fully. After their acquittal, two of his assailants were convicted in Federal court of violating his civil rights. King won a $3.8 million damage suit against the City (he sought $56 million), allowing him to buy a modest home (this is LA, after all) for himself and one for his mother, and to construct the swimming pool in which he eventually drowned.
Closes July 20, 2014
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW
1 hour, no intermission
Tuesday thru Sunday
Smith’s interrogation of the dead man is gentle and sympathetic, and all the more persuasive for being so. He takes King’s side where there is a side to be taken, but he does not flinch from the truth about the man. He understands that Rodney King was really Glen – an ordinary man, bewildered by the events he set in motion. When he pleads to the crowd (and Smith does him doing so, movingly, here) “why can’t we all get along?” he asks the same bewildered question most of us ordinary Americans ask. Smith, a veteran screen character actor (he was Smiley in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”), understands how to take command of a bare stage, and to tell a story without the benefit of technology.
But what of the larger question: have we learned anything since the day, twenty-three years ago, that Rodney King was beaten? Have we moved past the fear and anger which shaped the heart of the nation back then? Have we graduated from the time in which we did the things which were shown in the Rodney King video?
Oops, sorry. Wrong video.
Rodney King . Created and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith . Set and lighting design by Jose Lopez . Sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson . Kirk Wilson was the production stage manager. Presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.