10/23/2013 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rodney King : A Postmortem Interview as Told by Obie Award Winner Roger Guenveur Smith


Q-What compelled you to create this piece?

A-When we lost Rodney King last year during Father's day, I was tremendously moved -- and I wanted to know why. I had never met Rodney King, and had never engaged in any lampooning or comic relief references of him. To me, he was a man who was in the wrong place at the right time. He unwittingly became a public figure who was essentially a very private man.... a very simple man. I thought that it was essential that I personally tried to discover why I was so moved and how we lost him in such a bizarre fashion. The more I dug into the Rodney King story, the more I understood why his loss was so affecting.

Q-You are certainly no stranger to the medium of theater -- and your piece Juan and John showed audiences how as an artist one of your unique strengths is your ability to share how certain events such as the incident between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro affected you personally. How did the L.A. riots in the larger context affect you personally, including the actual beating of Rodney King himself?

A-Well Juan and John was inspired by that infamous event on August 22nd, 1965 when Juan Marichal went upside the head of John Roseboro in a professional baseball game. And I had just been in front of my family business on Western Avenue and saw other businesses being burned down firsthand and hearing people scream "burn baby burn." And when Marichal hit my hero upside the head with his bat I burned his baseball card and said "burn baby burn." And so that was the great traumatic event of my childhood. Now fast-forward to 1992 and I am a young adult and guess what? Boom!... Los Angeles is on fire again!

When you roll back to March 3, 1991 and Rodney King is beaten to within an inch of his life, and its televised -- my colleagues and I immediately took to the stage to try to do some sort of meditation on this seminal American moment. So filmmakers Ben Caldwell, Wesley Michael Groves, performers Kim Nickerson and Mark Broyard and I blew up what's now Kaos Gallery in Leimert Park with a piece we called Kaos TV -- all of this one week after the man was beaten. We had Kim Nickerson and Mark Broyard out on the street doing curbside reporting. Kim was calling attention to all of the black women at the time that had gone missing, while Broyard was out there giving people tips on the L.A.P.D. with what he called "Proper Cover Up Techniques"! And Mark Broyard, my longtime partner in Inside the Creole Mafia, would go on to demonstrate on camera for the live audience how to properly cover yourself up when confronting the L.A.P.D so you would not be the recipient of an ass whipping like Rodney King. Meanwhile; I am in what looks like a D.J. booth with what appears to the audience as a huge map of Los Angeles behind me, playing the role of the local news anchorman. My character is anticipating what will soon be going down in L.A., (future riots, fires, etc) pointing to potential hot spots all over this imaginary map. And guess what? A lot of this came to pass, of course, when the verdicts came down on April 29, 1992 a year later.

Q-Like many of us, King certainly had his share of shortcomings and personal demons. How important was if for you as an artist to try to accurately portray him, to show his contradictions and conflict?

A-Well, that's drama! A contradiction... there is no great drama without conflict! And when we are doing a solo performance, we must find the conflict within the solo character. That is why traditionally we have such great characters such as Troy Maxim -- the protagonist in August Wilson's Fences. That's why we have this guy named Hamlet, that's why we have this guy named Macbeth, or Huey P. Newton -- all subjects of drama who lend themselves to self-criticism, self-doubt, all of those things which are compelling in this ongoing theatrical experience. So Rodney Ford Glen King lends himself very affectively and tragically to the dramatic process. Rodney King was an invention. King's family and friends all called him Glen, his middle name. Rodney King emerged as the video tape emerged, what I call the first reality t.v. star-and it was very real and televised. And George Holiday (the man who shot the footage) took that footage to the L.A.P.D. They told him that they couldn't use the footage, but then he took it to some of the local t.v stations and they told him "we can definitely use it."

Q-When the curtain goes up, and the audience leaves, what do you want your audience to walk away with after seeing this piece on Rodney King?

A-I think it's essential to listen to Rodney King in the first person. We know him for a blurb... a sound bite. "Can we all get along"? In fact, he's usually misquoted by people who think he said "Can't we all just get along"? But he never said the word "just." Because that's diminishing the desire. I think it's essential that we listen to the full speech of Rodney King, in his own words-with all his attempts at dark humor, etc. I think it's one of the great American speeches -- right up there with that other King. Only this King didn't have a PhD -- this King didn't have a movement behind him. This King didn't even graduate from high school. If fact, the night he got popped, he was simply drinking and driving because he wanted to celebrate going to a new job that next Monday morning. People don't often realize that toward the end of Rodney's speech he answers his own question and says that we can all get along. In fact, he says it three times.

Q-In your opinion -- as an artist and as a human being -- can we all get along?

A-Absolutely. I don't think that Rodney King's question and challenge is limited to the L.A. metropolitan area. I think that this is a lesson that is applicable to the entire world just as the other King's lesson is applicable to everyone.

Q-At one point recently it appeared that the U.S. was set on sending Syria a message regarding the use of chemical weapons. What were your thoughts during that period of time, and how did that fit into the context of us all "getting along" to you?

A-Well we were about to jump into a situation where we were about to demonstrate to another country that it's inappropriate to use chemical weapons by using other types of weapons on them! Let's learn to get along because as Martin Luther King stated, "we can live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled the names of Kaos TV, Kaos Gallery, and Wesley Michael Groves. The post has been updated to correct these errors.