Don’t Shoot: Roger Guenveur Smith’s Timely RODNEY KING at PRC2


Roger Guenveur Smith in his one-man show RODNEY KING, at PRC2 through Sept. 7. Photo: Patti McGuire.

Roger Guenveur Smith in his one-man show RODNEY KING, at PRC2 through Sept. 7.                    Photo: Patti McGuire.

PlayMakers Repertory Company‘s second stage series, PRC2, generally presents works that are smaller and fiercer than the Mainstage series can be. Often one-person shows, they tend to address issues that range from difficult to baffling, and the presentations are structured to include post-show discussions–these are sometimes as provocative as the shows themselves. The season-opener this year began Sept. 2 and runs through Sept. 7. If you do not already have tickets for Rodney King, get them now, because Roger Guenveur Smith has made a remarkable artwork out of some particularly harrowing history.

If you had attained the age of reason by March 1991, you will remember, with shame, something about Rodney King being beaten within a millimeter of his life on the side of the road outside Los Angeles by a uniformed policeman, while three other policemen watched–as did a man on a nearby balcony, through the lens of his video camera. That video went around the world in hours, and its existence made a mockery of the “justice” meted out to the officers in their 1992 trial in Simi Valley, CA. When those men were found not guilty, rioting began in Los Angeles. Murder, grievous injury, mayhem, arson, looting, RAGE ran through the streets like mercury from a blown out thermometer. It was not, it turned out, the revolution, but it was televised. The government sent in the military, but it was more likely King’s press conference plea: “Can we all get along?” that kept all of LA from burning to the ground.  If, like 2014’s first-year class of college students, you had not yet been born, you can read a reasonably balanced short version of King’s story on Wikipedia.

Or, you could just get over to PlayMakers and take in Smith’s extraordinary rhetorical feat. As the recent abomination in Ferguson, MO, attests, the content is highly relevant. As important, from an aesthetic point of view, is that King is an excellent character for dramatic inspection. Did some bad things and many stupid things, but wasn’t evil. Did some good things, but wasn’t a great leader, except for one pitiful moment. Made a big mistake that could never be fixed: a tragic, polarizing figure.

Smith’s examination can be hard to take. Rodney King opens with Smith voicing some verses of a particularly ugly rap composition berating and demeaning Rodney King–essentially calling him an Uncle Tom. But in the manner of a jazz musician, Smith modulates and segues, again and again, through 65 minutes of variations in a minor key on the theme of the man’s life and actions. He dwells, naturally, on the horrific beating and the terrible trial, but he weaves in strand after strand of fact and makes the man, the human, more whole than 10,000 news reports could do.

Smith seems to have scoured all sources for his mass of telling details, which he vivifies with voice and movement. Very few performers have this level of vocal skill (and also know how to really use a microphone); fewer still can combine highly-skilled vocalization seamlessly with choreographed body-language. Yet–he’s not “playing” Rodney King. He invokes him, makes him appear–but he, Roger Guenveur Smith, is talking to him, Rodney King, questioning questioning questioning, and all the while pulling in strands of context and echoing history.

Eventually, Smith gets to Rodney King’s 2012 death by drowning in his own swimming pool, and the subsequent autopsy. In the performance on Sept. 2, he said that during the autopsy, King was “vivisected.” This clearly was not the accurate word, as King was already dead, but I thought it was the most brilliant of all the brilliant rhetorical strokes in the play. The Nazis vivisected people. The whole world had vivisected Rodney King with the razor knives of words. Roger Guenveur Smith had been vivisecting King’s life for close to an hour. The word generated the most horrible image, something that could overleap our accustomed horror at the events that made Rodney King’s name known around the world.

So, in the discussion afterward, I asked him why he used it. I thought he’d say something like the above. But he professed not to know that to vivisect is to cut up a live creature. He’s quite a wordsmith, so I think he may have been jiving me, especially since shortly thereafter he elicited from the audience the Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (From Requiem for a Nun.) In that sense, Rodney King lives on, although his dead body was dissected and dismantled. King lives on among the undead of history, his reputation vulnerable still, but, fortunately, this artist wields his scalpel with mercy on his mind.



MONSTER CAMP: Summer Sisters’ Sweet Skit

The Summer Sisters in MONSTER CAMP at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Jenn Evans.

The Summer Sisters in MONSTER CAMP. Photo: Jenn Evans.

There’s this group–a tribe–a porous-bordered cell–of creative female performance artists in Durham who like to get together in the summer and work out their imaginations on a topic. Last year, Summer Sisters took on daughters and mothers with Alzheimer’s, working from Sarah Leavitt’s graphic journal Tangles: My Mother, Alzheimer’s and Me. This year, “gently led” by the fearless broad-thinking actors Rachel Klem and Tamara Kissane, they started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a way to look at the monsters within and without, and examine the meaning of monstrosity in the psyche and in society. MONSTER CAMP opened at Common Ground Theatre Aug. 28.

The Summer Sisters take their discussions, soul-baring exercises and theatrical experiments as the raw material for their “devised” theatre. In MONSTER CAMP, there are readings, singing, movement, stories, stylized action sequences and one highly dramatic soliloquy (Dierdre Shipman). Each woman wears some version of yoga clothes, remarkable for the jagged red scars stitched here and there. Some of the songs and readings are rounds, with the voices overlapping and circling. In fact, the sense of spiraling deeper informs the entire show. One of the loveliest things about this show is the paradoxical double spiraling–out to the edges of ideas and aloneness, and deeper inward toward acceptance and connection.

But a show it is, with a rather adorable resemblance to skits at camp. There are some bits that don’t work as well as they might, but others that give a jolt of beauty or comprehension. Don’t expect much polish–this work is too fresh to need buffing up. Two more performances remain.

Dierdre Shipman in The Summer Sisters' MONSTER CAMP.  Photo: Jenn Evans.

Dierdre Shipman in The Summer Sisters’ MONSTER CAMP. Photo: Jenn Evans.


Fri, Sat, August 29, 30 at 8:00pm
Tickets: $15 (plus tax)-general admission
Reservations: (919) 384-7817

Songwriter Special Shines a Light on the SFC

Carolina Performing Arts’s new season began with some special selections of Americana music to honor the Southern Folklife Collection’s 25th birthday.

As important as it is to preserving cultural history, much of it musical, it seems like the Southern Folklife Collection, housed in UNC-Chapel Hill’s handsome Wilson Library, should have been around much longer than the 25 years it celebrated last weekend, as Carolina commenced its fall semester. Carolina Performing Arts kicked off the weekend with a super double New Orleans program, then presented American music legends Merle Haggard and The Strangers in Memorial Hall on Aug. 23. Leading off was North Carolina luminary Tift Merritt, with her sideman Eric Heywood. Some of her songs may be legends one day, too.

Merle Haggard. At 77, the highway's still his home. Photo: Myriam Santos.

Merle Haggard. At 77, the highway’s still his home. Photo: Myriam Santos.

I missed Johnny Cash; I missed George Jones, though not for lack of trying. I never figured to hear Merle Haggard at this late stage. It was fascinating. The man has lived through many of the dramatic tropes that drive country music, and has not only survived to a worthy age, but has written songs from his experiences that remain among the most recognizable among classic country songs. Beginning in the 1960s and carrying right on, touring with The Strangers most of that time, he has produced tens of albums of his own songs; recorded some extraordinary work with George Jones and Willie Nelson; and released tribute albums like his ineffable pearl of a collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs. His voice is still amazingly strong–no quaver until 3rd song from the end. He’s lean and tough and wears his hat and shades on stage. He’s a little ornery, and a little blasé, as a band leader, but the realest songs of the set were the sweetest ones.

Among the nine band members are his wife and youngest son. It’s a fine band, but almost too practiced. There were some hot moments involving the pedal steel and the saxophone (an utterly thrilling sound combination), but overall, the performance was neat and pat, with the register of hits well represented (lots of train songs). They still resonate, though, and to hear the writer sing them was a bit like hearing Ferlinghetti read from A Coney Island of the Mind–quite unexpected, and a treat.  From Chapel Hill, Haggard’s buses set off to take the plaintive poetry to the Ryman Auditorium, then on extended wanderings up and down the continental center. Merle Haggard and The Strangers will play at county fairs, casinos, civic centers, and Austin City Limits before cruising back to California in December. The man commands a crowd from fancy collegiate art houses as well as more modest venues because he just sticks to the plain truth, and doesn’t sweeten up the jabs. He taps into some deep longings, from “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” to the haunting plea of “Big City”–“big city turn me loose and set me free, some where in the middle of Montana…”

Haggard closed the Memorial Hall show with the 1969 “Okie from Muskogee,” at once a thrilling paean  to small-town patriotism and belonging (that rising praise song of names at the end!), and a contemptuous disparagement of the anti-Viet Nam War counter-culture. Hearing it live in Memorial gave me a very odd feeling. Merle Haggard would not have been so welcome on UNC campus in 1969 or 1970, when “Okie” won the Country Music Song of the Year and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” came out.

But in 2014, the hall was packed, and there were more than a few western hats in audience. I may have been the only one to feel this way, but it made my hackles rise to hear Haggard dedicate the song “to all the warriors.” (Presumably those would be only the American warriors.) And near me, a pale, skinny, bookish boy who might have been 20, a boy unburdened by the travails of the 20th century, raptly mouthed all the words to a song written decades before he was born. ” We still fly Old Glory down at the courthouse in Muskogee Oklahoma USA!

He looked like he was seeing salvation.

Turn turn turn…the times they are a changin’.

Tift Merritt’s from Raleigh, and went to Carolina–though she was at pains to correct the introduction of her as “an alum.” She swore to the audience, though, that by this time next year, she’d have finished those nine hours and have become a college graduate–but she’d still throw her clothes on the floor and wear red lipstick. Hey, the girl–she’s not but 39–can do whatever she wants to, as long as she keeps writing songs. As anyone who’s seen her knows, she’s always a lady, no matter how hard she may be rocking out and sleeping late.

Merritt is a versatile and daring musician and writer. Since her delicious 2002 album Bramble Rose, she’s done well enough recording and touring to get to keep doing it, pretty much as she wishes. She collaborates with various artists (her Duke Performances-commissioned collaboration with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein resulted in a haunting album on Sony Classical), but like many writers, requires solitude. Her latest album, Traveling Alone, is on Yep Roc.

Although Merritt gave one of the best electric concerts I’ve ever seen and heard, at the NC Museum of Art amphitheater–her first big-venue concert at home after the success of Bramble Rose–she is really at her best in more intimate settings, with instrumentation that allows easy understanding of her poetic lyrics. Memorial Hall isn’t really intimate, but on the 23rd, Merritt and Eric Heywood created a sense of small and close, nestling themselves well-downstage from the phalanx of amps, monitors and instruments belonging to Haggard’s band.

Heywood is a perfect accompanist to Merritt. His pedal steel is lyrical, nuanced far beyond the norm, and he was almost as compelling on guitar. They played a range of work from the last 12 years, including the wise title song of the latest album. Tift was joined for one song–one ravishing song–by her longtime bandmate Jay Brown on harmony vocals. It happened to be “Bramble Rose,” written by a slim-built big-hearted young woman who was still being ignored while singing in bars. With its sad brave repeating line, “a real good woman that nobody knows,” it couldn’t be written today. TIft Merritt, real good woman, is known all over.  But someday, the people may have forgotten that lovely song, and that’s why we need the Southern Folklife Collection. So that the music never falls silent and unknown in history’s heavy mist.

Songwriter and musician Tift Merritt. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Songwriter and musician Tift Merritt. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

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