Roger Guenveur Smith’s dad wanted him to be a lawyer, fighting for social justice in the courts.
Smith went to Yale University to get a graduate degree in history, thinking he would spend a life chronicling America’s strengths and weaknesses.
They were both right: He became an actor.
You can see how those paths meet on Jan. 10, when he comes to UNC Charlotte with the free one-man show “Rodney King.” This will be one of the last times he performs his piece about the man who was beaten by L.A. police in 1991, then helped avert extended rioting when those cops were acquitted the following year. Spike Lee has filmed the show for live streaming, and it’ll be available early in 2017.
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“A whole generation knows nothing of him,” says Smith, who’s 61. “Maybe they saw him on ‘Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew,’ but they didn’t know the Rodney King I thought I knew. When we lost him on Father’s Day of 2012, I was very moved, and I wanted to know why.
“I had never met him. I had referenced him in my work over the last 20 years – never in a mocking way, as the butt of a joke – and always looked at him as a symbol of resilience. But the loss of him was like the loss of someone I did know. I had an emotional curiosity about why he mattered to me in the way he did, and why he would matter to a potential audience.”
That spark has ignited Smith over and over again in his unusual career. He has been a screen actor for three decades, appearing in seven Spike Lee films and dozens of movies and TV shows. (He was Isaac, a house slave opposed to Nat Turner’s rebellion, in “The Birth of a Nation” this fall.) He even played a history professor on the TV show “A Different World.”
Meanwhile, historical events grab hold of him and drive him toward one-man stage shows about Black Panther Huey P. Newton, antislavery activist Frederick Douglass, Simon Rodia (who built the astonishing Watts Towers), or Juan Marichal and John Roseboro, the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher and the catcher he battered with a baseball bat during the pennant race of 1965.
“My independent work emerged without direction,” he recalls. “I started with storefront performances, rapping as ‘Holly Watts.’ I grew up smack dab in the middle of those two mythologies (Hollywood and Watts, site of famous riots when he was 10), and that became my nom de plume.”
But though he’s a Californian, he understands the mind of the South: His father came from Portsmouth, Va., and his mother from Charleston. One uncle had a tobacco farm in Ahoskie, N.C.; a married uncle and aunt taught at North Carolina A&T and Bennett College in Greensboro. “So,” says Smith, “it’s always good for me to be back there.”
He’s been inspired by the commanding writer-performer Steven Berkoff and spoken-word artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and Linton Kwesi Johnson. But “I have learned more by listening to my friend Branford Marsalis than I ever have in an acting workshop. He plays the same (saxophone) standards night after night and makes them work in different ways. I think we word people are still trying to catch up with the great musicians.”
When Smith talks about improvising, he doesn’t mean he uses different language or references each night (though he might) or responds to audience requests. He tailors the flow of the show to the mood he’s in that day. And though he quotes Rodney King at length, he doesn’t embody the man.
Smith opens with the song “F--- Rodney King” by Willie D of the Geto Boys: “He felt King did not live up to the standards of machismo the moment demanded, so he went on a musical tirade.” He closes with King’s “Can we all get along” speech from May 1, 1992, a plea for universal tolerance.
“Rodney’s speech was somewhat of a gospel, and it functions that way for those capable of listening,” says Smith. “It wasn’t elegant. Something in his brain short-circuited. But even in the silences, there’s a certain eloquence.
“He was able to get out there, brain-damaged as he was, drunk as he probably was, with the severe disappointment of seeing the men who beat him (acquitted) two days before. The sun was blazing. He was overdressed, not trained in public speaking, not even a high school graduate.
“He could’ve said ‘Burn it down!’ Or said nothing and walked into anonymity. He had the courage and humanity to pull this off, and it’s tragic he was never recognized for that vital contribution to the survival of our second-largest city.”
Roger Guenveur Smith brings his one-man show to UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Hall (in Belk Theater) at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 10. It’s free, and reservations are not required. WBTV’s Steve Crump will lead a talkback after the show to relate it to the recent Keith Lamont Scott shooting in Charlotte.