Rodney King: The First Reality TV Star

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Whether we like it or not, Rodney King looms as a mythic and complicated figure over the last 20 years of Los Angeles history. For some a catalyst, for others a symbol, Mr. King was thrust reluctantly into the searchlight of LA becoming, in the words of solo performer Roger Guenveur Smith, 'the first reality TV star.' With Mr. King's death this year coinciding almost exactly with the 20 year anniversary of his beating, his tale takes on the tone of fated Greek tragedy.

So it's easy to see why Roger Guenveur Smith is creating a solo show, titled simply "Rodney King." What's more complicated, perhaps appropriately so, is exactly what Mr. Smith is trying to reveal about Mr. King.

As a solo performer, Mr. Smith is not only a staple of the LA performance scene but also has a long history of crafting shows that tackle, head on, African-American identity and politics.

For those who haven't seen Mr. Smith's perform, his work is a cross between poetry slam, history lesson, and dance piece. He commands the stage with a charismatic, deliberate presence and, at his best, spins tales out of witty, poetic monologues that play with the slippery nature of words. Physically, his lithe body is almost constantly in motion swaying and embodying the words in a choreography that's both evocative of the action and expressive of a deeper rhythm.

In Rodney King, the physical score is divided between between the upper and lower halves of his body. His arms mime the baton blows of police, hands thrown up in surrender, and the gestures of struggle - all rendered in a slow motion tempo as if underwater or obscured by hazy memory. His legs are constantly, slowly shifting weight from one bent knee to another like a tai chi master. It's a dance that led one audience member to ask in post show Q & A, "Have you studied Butoh?" Mr. Smith's retort "No, I studied the Cornelius Method - the Don Cornelius method"

The structure of Rodney King is a bit like an eerie post-mortem exit interview between Mr. Smith and Mr. King. As he catalogues and replays the history of Rodney's life trying to make sense of it all, Mr. Smith intones "Isn't that right Rodney?" "What was it like Rodney?" It's a conceit that allows Roger Guenveur Smith to interrogate the past if not illuminate it.

To be fair, this is a piece that's in its early stages of development. Mr. Smith is using his three week residency to discover the show. He is, in effect, improvising the 55 minute show each night. If his past productions are any guide, Rodney King will go through many iterations and this won't be the last chance to see him work it all out.

But if you want to see a consummate performance artist grapple with an icon of LA and discover a play in the 'process of becoming,' head over to the Bootleg Theater.

Rodney King plays through August 19.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater

for KCRW.


Run time: 55 minutes (no intermission)

Banner image: Roger Guenveur Smith in his one-man show, Rodney King. Photo by Patti McGuire