We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Rearrange your calendar. Cancel the vacation, reschedule the dinner party, find a baby sitter or, dammit, sell the children—just get tickets for A Huey P. Newton Story. It’s not going to be around long enough for everybody to see it, and trust me, everybody needs to see it.

Language is too poor, says Roger Guenveur Smith about halfway through this triumphantly theatrical study of the late Black Panther leader; words are too imprecise to fairly describe certain aspects of the human condition. Mere English is assuredly too clumsy a tool to do justice to Smith’s electrifying solo performance in Newton, which he created using excerpts from his subject’s writings and interviews. Alone in a plain wooden chair on a bare, sparely lit stage, the actor (a veteran, with previous one-man shows, television, and several Spike Lee films, including Get on the Bus, to his credit) outlines a sympathetic but unflinching vision of a reluctant hero, a brilliant but drug-addled revolutionary too self-aware and too driven by personal demons to survive for long on the pedestal of the cultural icon.

This is Newton as he might be today, had he lived—he’s on a book tour, perhaps, or lecturing at some leftist conclave. He’s both exhausted and wired, bitterly disillusioned and ironically mellow, intimidatingly, seductively intelligent, capriciously aggressive and oddly vulnerable. It’s very deliberately “a” Huey P. Newton story; everyone of a certain generation has his own idea of who Newton was and how he should be remembered, and Smith seems intent on confronting every last one of those notions. He invests his virtuoso performance with a bracing blend of political passion, scabrous humor, and unanticipated pathos; whatever your politics or expectations, this is a theatrical milestone, a challenging, intensely exciting, and ultimately invigorating experience that is most emphatically not to be missed.

In many ways, it’s about mannerisms. Smith jitters and twitches and scribes angry, querulous arcs in the air with the cigarette that’s always in his hand, scatters ashes on his trousers and flicks them spasmodically away: He stutters and stumbles and repeats himself, a halting rush of words falling from his lips in a freakishly accurate imitation of Newton’s reedy Louisiana whine. It could almost be a parody: “Kids” becomes “keeyids,” “theory” stretches and twists itself into “theeerih,” and meanwhile the knees bounce, the head jerks, the eyebrows snap into an arch, and the nervous rictus of a smile clicks open and closed like a shutter.

All these would be just clever tricks of characterization but for the exquisitely subtle way Smith uses them to parse and punctuate his lines. Newton’s famous stutter, to cite only the most obvious example, is merely a device until you realize that Smith isn’t just stuttering; he’s dancing verbally around a rhetorical point, repeating the setup phrase, focusing attention and building tension (the way Wagner builds tension in those rising, repetitive phrases near the end of Isolde’s Liebestod) so that when finally, after a beat, he spits out the rest of the sentence, it lands with an explosive thud and a practically measurable release of pressure. Sometimes the effect is bitterly comic, as when he talks about a ghetto denizen’s right to be tried by “a jury of his peers, not somebody from, somebody from, somebody from—from Prince George’s County.” Mostly, it’s stunningly effective; this is a performance so carefully modulated it’s almost musical.

In fact, it is musical; the whole show is performed to the accompaniment of a live mix created by New Yorker composer/performer Marc Anthony Thompson. It’s a sinuous agglomeration of synthesized and sampled noises, from slow jazz to dreamy modernist soundscapes to clips of Newton’s own voice. And it is by no means background noise; with pinpoint precision, Thompson accents and underscores and highlights Smith’s delivery. He even joins the discussion briefly, in a wry parody of talk-show banter, to help Smith make a particularly barbed point about the contemptibility of the “geek”—the soulless audience member who watches and comments on the freak show. (All together now: Everybody shift uncomfortably in your seat.)

There’s deadly accurate social commentary here, and enough about Newton’s politics to give the inexperienced an idea of what he might have been like. (“I’ve got a dream. Not Dr. King’s dream; I’ve got my own dream, thank you very much. None of that ‘We shall be overcome’ stuff.”)

There’s plenty of bile, and enough biography to make Newton a sympathetically human character in spite of it. A “hardhead” who graduated high school functionally illiterate, he taught himself to read with a book of poetry and albums of recorded Shakespeare; he quotes John Dryden and Macbeth, talks of sound and fury and of leaping the crystal walls of Paradise, and, in between readings of his own moody poetry, sardonically insists that a fellow revolutionary “put a semicolon in between what they said and what I said, ’cause there will be young people reading the 10 Points, and they will want it to be grammatically correct.”

The evening’s ambiguous feel—and its visceral power—is summed up in one brilliant moment about a third of the way through. Newton, having read off the Panthers’ 10-Point Program of prescriptions for social justice, ends with a call for peace, his right hand raised in the ubiquitous ’60s symbol. There’s a pause, a shift in the lighting and a subtle hardening in Smith’s expression, and his hand comes down, the fingers changing position until they form a gun pointed at the audience, and he fires. Repeatedly, brutally, coldly.

Then he laughs. “Huey P. Newton shoots up integrated theater audience. News at 11.”

It’s a tragic, hilarious, horrifying, and revealing instant. Go see this blistering, beautiful piece of theater and understand why.CP