About a decade ago, I was at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to see Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man performance of "A Huey P. Newton Story," and was blown away by the actor and the way he delivered the radical politics of the Black Panther Party on stage. Last night, I saw this same actor and was even more impressed as he used only a bench, historical projections on a screen, simple lighting, but mostly acting skills, to tell another great story.
"Juan and John," focuses mostly on a baseball-field brawl that took place in the summer of 1965 between San Francisco Giants Hall-of-Fame pitcher Juan Marichal and Dodgers catcher John Roseboro and the aftermath of that incident. Smith's work shows how a man from Ohio and a man from the Dominican Republic have much in common, and how they eventually became friends after 10 years of not speaking to each other.
There's a lot of history in this play: local L.A. history, as well as national and world history. Smith was a big Dodgers fan when he was a kid so he retells what he saw on television that day, as well as his experience during the Watts rebellion that also occurred that same summer. He also talks about what the White House, (under the leadership of Lyndon B. Johnson), was doing at the time--including the U.S. escalation in Vietnam and the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic.
Of course, Smith was able to weave all this historical information (and political commentary) into his work in a way that it works, thanks to his acting range, (and lots of clever jokes that you will get if you're paying attention to current events). Watching him switch from one character to another was amazing.
The one thing that really surprised me about the play was how much Smith also plays himself, and the personal things he reveals about himself and his relationship with his daughter. I didn't get it at first, but it's because, in the end this play is about human relations and reconciliation.
Juan and John is playing through November 13, 2011. Tickets are $20 to $40 dollars and available online or via phone at 866-811-4111. (There's also a special $10 show next Thursday during the LA ArtWalk).