Visual Arts

Playing King

In a powerful performance, Roger Guenveur Smith explores the troubled legacy of Rodney King

On the night of March 3, 1991, Rodney King became a household name. After leading the police on a high-speed car chase through Los Angeles, King was pulled over and savagely beaten by four members of the LAPD. The beating was caught on video. By the time an all-white jury acquitted the officers of police brutality, causing the city to erupt into the deadliest riots in modern American memory, King was already becoming a polarizing figure, heralded as a civil rights hero by some and condemned by others as a drug addict and criminal.

In his recent one-man show at the DuSable Museum, Roger Guenveur Smith eschewed the easy labels applied to King and explored the full extent of his legacy, examining him both as a troubled man and as an unwitting focal point of race relations in America. The events surrounding King ignited a national conversation about police brutality and racism that put King at the center of a historic moment but obscured and transformed the man himself. The show, by contrast, delivers a deep portrait. With wit, irony, and anger, it paints King as a complicated individual grappling with his place in history and his addictions.

The play, an improvised combination of historical anecdotes and lyrical rhythms, is at once a poem, a song, and a prayer to the now-deceased King. Its clearest emotion is anger. Yet Smith never makes clear the object of his anger. Part of it seems aimed at King: we want our heroes to be heroes, and we want their victimhood to be framed by sainthood, but King never fit that image. He struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, and the weight of being placed at the center of racial tension. Smith, in turn, struggles with King’s duality as an individual and as a symbol. He casts Rodney as both “a second-generation alcoholic” and a caring man who wanted everyone to get along. At the same time, it is obvious that Smith has a deep respect for King, and his anger is not focused solely on the man himself. He casts his profound anger at the irony of injustice, at the system of power that put King beneath those police batons, and at the lives lost to racism, while bringing home the reality of King’s inability to bear the torch that was handed to him.

At a particularly emotional moment of the performance, Smith quoted some of the looters, who were shouting, “This is for you, Rodney!” He then turned to King, saying, “But it’s not all about you, Rodney,” and began narrating for King the stories of several people who died in the riots following the police officers’ acquittal.

Smith further emphasizes the importance of the conversation beyond King by embedding his story within a larger cultural narrative. In the final scene of the play, Smith reenacts King’s death by drowning in his swimming pool in 2012. Gasping for air, saying “I can’t breathe,” Smith echoes the refrain of Eric Garner, whose death at the hands of the police mirrored King’s beating in a number of ways.

The reality of police brutality and antagonism toward people of color is a phenomenon with deep and persistent historical roots, something Smith highlights in his performance. By breathing life into the story of Rodney King, Smith shows the stark difference between black and white justice in the United States, rekindling a discussion we are all part of.

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