What importance is there for a kid from the ghetto to learn about Rodney King? This was one of the questions raised at a Q&A after a performance of "Rodney King" that I saw last month. Indeed, though, why should anyone care to learn about who Rodney King was?
Although, I don't believe writer/actor Roger Guenveur Smith was asking himself this when he started to create his latest one-man show, he certainly did get into that question.
In the play, he tells the story--in as much details as he can--about what happened that infamous night when Rodney King was brutally beaten by four LAPD officers, whose subsequent acquittal--after being caught on tape--sparked the 1992 L.A. Rebellion. (Also known as the "Rodney King Riots" by some people in the media--even though Rodney King didn't riot; all he did was survive "the baddest ass-whopping in history").
But, Smith also gets into what was going on in the community prior to the King incident--all the injustice and systematic oppression that Black people in South Los Angeles had been facing for decades. (For instance, the story of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl who was unlawfully shot and killed by a Korean store owner--which occurred just weeks after the videotaped beating of King).
In a recent interview with Michael Slate on KPFK, Slate told Smith, "One of the things that happened with Rodney King from the moment he was targeted and beaten, the dehumanization...They robbed him of his humanity when they beat him--they tried to beat him to death; they robbed him of his humanity when they made him into this icon that he wasn't; and then other people robbed him of it too when they continued, all the way up through the end of his life, the struggle over, is he a hero? Is he a victim?...He was Rodney King. He was a human being that was thrust unto the stage of history in a way that he never expected and didn't want, and then had to deal with the repercussions of that the rest of his life. And I thought you did a really wonderful job in capturing that humanity."
Indeed, what can be most appreciated by this performance is the artists' ability to treat the subject with respect as he helps us explore the ills of society. Smith does not put King on a pedestal as some kind of hero or idol because he wasn't any of those. He was just a human being that--by way of accident--got caught put up on the national spotlight. Most importantly, we are reminded that he was not unlike the many human beings in South Los Angeles today that continue to deal brutality by the LAPD.
"Rodney King" will return for a limited engagement, (only seven performances), from September 20-29, 2012 at the Bootleg Theater. Please, check it out!