Being that what happened to Rodney King happened while I was still in diapers, it has been a tale more so told often than truly felt. Yet, with so many looking to retell his story or what happened during the aftermath, it seemed only fitting to start at the beginning. To watch a one man show which lets you into the mind of the man who perhaps reawakened America to its racial issues. Though, without that being his intention.
Characters & Storyline
Rodney King (Roger Guenveur Smith). A man who may not have been a saint, but certainly didn’t deserve the type of beating which would have killed a lesser man. Standing as 6 feet, 2 inches, over 200 pounds, a gang of police officers used their batons to take him down. 50+ strikes, loads of blood lost, a metal pipe to keep his eye in place afterwards and hours of surgery. Rodney King went viral before going viral was a thing.
Yet, his story isn’t the only thing worth noting when it comes to the riots. There was Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old killed over a $2 bottle of orange juice. There were the riots of the past, like the Zoot Suit riots. But most importantly, there are patterns. Patterns in which Black and Brown people aren’t allowed their humanity. Black and Brown communities who know of justice in books, in the law, but it is a foreign experience. And where is anger to go where it is pent up inside of you with nowhere else to go but your hands and feet? Hence, the people riot.
On The Fence
It’s Artistic In A Way You Perhaps Don’t Expect The Story To Be Told
It’s an hour-long one-man show. One which doesn’t have what most one men shows have, such as humor. It is raw, deserving of the word unflinching, and made to be art. There is nothing about this one man show made to entertain you. It reminds you of how everyday men and women become news headlines. How, when America is reminded of the brutality that only certain groups face, everyone suddenly cares.
Yet, the world cares isn’t always used with its common interpretation. Some care for they identify with Rodney. They see him as a brother, father, uncle, or cousin. Looking at that person in their life, they see them as possibly next. Someone who, without the grace of some otherworldly being, may not make it to see a judge give “Not Guilty” pleas. For others, they care because Rodney King is an example. No, not an example of racial intolerance, but why cops are as brutal as they are. A man speeding down a road with no regards to his fellow citizen? One who doesn’t know how to stay down and was allegedly high? They care because they have to be the alternative. They have to be the one who sees something no one else does. They see a habitual criminal who refuses to be reformed and needed to learn a lesson.
In Smith’s program, all sides are presented. Plus, in addition to Rodney King’s story, there are others noted which contributed to that eruption in 1992. Black women are noted, those who died in the riots, and while you could say Smith’s sweat is due to the heat of the lights, it really maybe the weight of the stories. He is bearing his soul and taking theirs in and the weight of so many who didn’t meet justice in the courtroom weigh more heavily than a cross, heavier than a boulder. These stories are what weigh on generations like balls and shackles that can’t be broken with no pick ax and there may not be a key to. All you can do is pick up the ball or drag it. Maybe pretend it isn’t there. But you’ll be reminded of it. Sooner or later, we all are reminded of it.
However, while Smith delivers the context of the message well, verbally, he does it in such a way as an exasperated high school history teacher. You can tell he knows his stuff and has an idea of how it should be presented but there isn’t that charisma or certain something which keeps you consistently connected to him. What I mean is, with there being no easing up from Rodney King’s assault, his drinking habits, and the stories of others who died tragic deaths, you might expect our medium to these stories to have some sort of Denzel manner of speaking to keep you engaged, perhaps a Viola Davis sort of emotion on his face, but no. Like the underpaid high school teacher, he looks out, almost dead in the eyes, giving a masterfully written lecture he can’t perform to appease everybody so he speaks to the part of the class that is able and willing to focus as the rest are slowly lost as time goes on.
Overall: Mixed (Stick Around)
Speaking from the point of view of someone who enjoys one man shows, even if not seeing them live, what you get in Rodney King is the rare depiction of a Black life, while speaking on other lives, without that usual comedic relief. There is no laughing to keep you from crying. Roger Smith is trying to beat into you what a lot of Black people and people of color go through.
There is no desire to placate you, no desire to make these people into saints, nor damn them for their sins. What he tries to do is take a well-known moment and expand your knowledge of it. Make Rodney King not the sum of the LA Riots just like Martin Luther King Jr. shouldn’t be the sum of the civil rights movement.
Perhaps leading to the question of why is this rated Mixed then? Well, it is because Roger Smith’s show is polarizing. It’s factual but it doesn’t contain that usual element used in Black storytelling. With an utter absence of jokes or light moments, we are simply given a downward spiral. Something which you feel like should be praised, since it isn’t taking the easy road that people are comfortable with. Yet, to sit and watch him perform in one sitting is a dull experience.
For while the facts may hold weight and be devastating, Smith’s performance at times isn’t. At times he is like the eccentric person with a megaphone on the corner. He may speak with some sort of passion and urgency, but he never holds your attention for too long. To the point that, honestly, there might be times you don’t even want to finish the whole hour. For it is only if you are committed to learning more about the subject matter that you’ll be able to stick it through. Otherwise, Smith will probably lose your attention as it becomes clear his show was in no way adapted to hold an audience which wasn’t seeing him live and, for a lack of a better term, stuck in the chair with no alternative but to rudely walk out of the theater. Which, since his performance isn’t that bad, seems like a drastic option.