The mind tends to slip off in moments of extreme trauma, as anyone who has experienced some sort of prolonged physical shock can attest. The central question that pervades Roger Guenveur Smith’s powerful and powerfully strange one-person play about the violence done to the life of Rodney King is where King’s mind slipped off to while he was being beaten. Answering that question sees Smith follow the twists and turns taken by the trauma of a man unwittingly elevated to a stand-in for America’s failure to grapple with race in a nearly psychedelic production that embraces brazen dissonance, looped time, audio pastiche, and periods of free association to brilliant effect.
It is difficult to understate the significance of the beating of Rodney King by the police and the subsequent riots: These events largely bookended the traditional age of Civil Rights and reactionary Reaganism, heralding the fiercer, weirder age of technocratic neoliberalism we live in now. The nominal reform of the LAPD that followed the riots transferred into the hyper-militarization of all police; The changing media landscape made the LA riots the first television riot, hot on the heels of the first television war the year prior; The famed videotape of his beating marked the start of a faith in the possibility of citizen journalism that later evolved into the mass self-surveillance of cell phones; Even the pastiche techniques that Smith sometimes uses in the play can be found in the legacy of the riots–one of the first documentaries of the riots, produced by Paper Tiger Television, frequently transforms into flashing, quick-cut video art. In many ways, the riots were less about a past that put out a welcome mat for racism and violence than they were about a future that promised nothing but more of the same for eternity.
Eternity is something that was clearly on Smith’s mind as he put the production together. He used a similar one-person format for his landmark play “A Huey P. Newton Story”, but where that work saw Smith carefully render a man and all his tics in excruciating detail, here he makes a radical departure by refusing to characterize his subject, acting instead as the interlocutor of what turns into an eternal out-of-body experience. Smith narrates King’s drive through Los Angeles to the site of his run-in with the police (now the site of the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles we learn) where he reenacts the beating with a fury that even thousands of feet of videotape couldn’t possibly capture. King suddenly emerges in the hospital where a nurse tries to comfort him (“Don’t you worry, Mr. King. They got it all on videotape”) and then suddenly finds himself immersed in water, taken back to memories of being taught to swim (and eventually surf, leading to one of the strangest scenes one might find in a play on the subject). He is driving again through and endless maze of LA streets, yet simultaneously holed up in a hotel, drinking brandy as he learns of the beating of trucker Reginald Denny, whom he casually knows from work. He begins to drive again and it rapidly becomes clear that the geography of the city is the wallpaper of his head and it encourages the audience to make their own associations. For me, I was taken back to my only real memories of the time: An NPR report on the riots wherein a middle-aged white man complained to a (presumably) white reporter that he’d been mistakenly swept up by the police (in what might be the greatest example of missing the point in human history). Then, when I went to my middle school to find classmates wearing black armbands and was told this was a call for peace, although it struck me as a fairly impotent gesture, even at that age. King is drinking again, this time on a journey to see the uprising taking place in his name, disguised in a Bob Marley wig as he travels through a surreal landscape, like Orpheus in the Underworld. Smith makes an aside to tell the story of several people murdered during the riots, some killed by mistake, some leaving behind only charred corpses. The unrelenting assault on King’s sense of time and space leaves behind a man who seems bewildered by what’s going on around him and the narrative of his life follows him from drink to drink as he self-medicates through the pain. Probably the crowning achievement of the production though is how Smith speaks of King’s death: As time recurring. The year King was born, 1965, was also the year of the death of Malcolm X and the outbreak of the Watts Riots. King then dies in the same manner as his father, intoxicated and drowned in a pool of water. Smith’s King has something of a transcendental experience in death when he is vivisected and his heart is removed ceremoniously, “as if you were an Aztec god and they placed it on the scales and weighed it” (confirming that King’s had an enlarged heart).
Ultimately, a one-person show exploring the links between the unconscious mind and the passage of time is the only real way to reconcile with the legacy that Rodney King left behind. At the close of the show, Smith says in a light voice, “Mr. King, you’re on.” Wailing police sirens transform into a first dull, then soft, roar that trails off into bubbles, bringing to an end what will likely stand as the most powerful look yet of the series of events in just one life that became a defining moment of what can only be described as America’s abject refusal to understand that race is indelibly twined to violence. Once the lights came back up and some sense of linear time was restored, Smith reemerged to state the obvious: “This is not a performance, it’s a prayer.”