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.