Riot Act: Smith finds the man within the symbol of injustice.
Riot Act: Smith finds the man within the symbol of injustice.

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It wouldn’t be right to call Roger Guenveur Smith’s 65-minute monologue Rodney King a call to arms. In fact it’s the opposite of that. Though it pulses with righteous outrage, it’s “less a performance than a prayer,” as Smith said after taking his bows at a performance last week. The answer it suggests to its subject’s famous plea—“Can we all get along?”—is a grim one: Someday, maybe. But probably not.

King asked that question in May of 1992, during the deadly riots that followed an all-white jury’s acquittal of the four LAPD officers who together struck King with their batons 56 times on March 3, 1991. (King, who was driving drunk, had led the cops on a dangerous high-speed freeway chase.) Two of the officers would be convicted in federal court of violating King’s civil rights the following year, and sentenced to two-and-a-half-year prison terms. King would use his $3.8 million settlement to buy himself “a modest home with a backyard pool,” to quote another phrase the show samples as an ironic sound bite. The father of three would drown in his pool on Father’s Day 2012, aged 47 years—the last 21 of them with a metal plate in his skull to hold his eye in place, a souvenir of the time the cops tried to beat him to death, then took him to the station for booking before he received medical care.

A lengthy audio collage of news clips opens the show, eventually resolving into a electronic chorus chirping King’s famous refrain. Indeed, Marc Anthony Thompson’s sound design is the production’ only extravagance. There are a few lighting effects that suggest flashing police lights, but the stage is bare. Smith, dressed in loose-fitting jeans and black V-neck shirt, performs barefoot. Rodney King would be just as powerful on the radio.

A seasoned solo theater artist as well as a busy film and TV actor who’s appeared in a half-dozen Spike Lee joints (including Do the Right Thing, which came out three years before the L.A. riots but certainly understood them), Smith rarely raises his voice above a whisper. He peppers his sentences with unpredictable pauses and rhythmic repetitions of key phrases (“Right, Rodney?”)—a trick, perhaps, to make us listen more intently. He sways his big frame slowly from side to side, reminding us that King—a man whose family and friends knew him as “Glen” before he became, in Smith’s phrase, “the first reality-TV star”—liked to surf. It’s details like this, reminding us that King was a person before and after he became a personification of racial injustice and police brutality, that make the show something deeper than mere agitprop.

Smith didn’t begin working on the show until after King’s death. Unlike his earlier shows like The Huey P. Newton Story (which he performed at Woolly in 1996), he did no interviews for the piece, basing it entirely on public accounts and documents.

Even so, the piece contains chilling details, like the fact that George Holliday, who shot the tape of King’s beating, tried to hand it over to the LAPD before he brought it to the TV station KTLA. What if the police hadn’t refused it? Would we ever have known what happened?

Moreover, would some of the 53 people killed in the 1992 riots still be alive? The show is most heart-wrenching when it profiles a handful of that calamity’s victims. Like the 15-year-old girl who was killed by a shot to the back of the head by a store owner who believed the girl was trying to rob her. The shooter’s sentence didn’t even include jail time, just a fine, probation, and 400 hours of community service. Rodney King captures the tragic fallout of what fear and hate make people do. To call it a prayer is right.