Though he’s from Los Angeles, Roger Guenveur Smith grew up in a neighborhood shaped by New Orleans. His church was filled with Louisiana transplants and a distinct 7th Ward Creole accent, he says.
“The great migration from the gumbo famine of 1958,” Smith says with a laugh about the community’s link to Louisiana.
One of the performer’s early theatrical pieces was called Inside the Creole Mafia, which he performed with Mark Broyard.
Smith’s mother attended Xavier University of Louisiana, and he built his own links to the city, mostly through performances of solo shows (including Huey P. Newton at the Contemporary Arts Center) and in roles for movies including Eve’s Bayou and the current TV miniseries Queen Sugar. This week, he returns to the CAC to open its performance season with Rodney King, a solo show in which Smith explores the real life of the man whose 1991 beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers was captured on videotape and broadcast around the world. King was viewed as everything from a victim to a hero, as well as a scapegoat for rioting and deaths when the police officers were acquitted of using excessive force on him.
“Rodney King was the first reality TV star,” Smith says via phone from his home in Los Angeles. “He became this image of something on the screen. To reclaim his humanity is one of the great challenges of this piece. We talk about King as a symbol of something. Of police brutality, of oppression, of resilience, or we put him in a heroic cage as well. He was a complicated man. I think like all of us, he deserves a complicated consideration.”
Smith developed his piece from an improvisation at Los Angeles’ Bootleg Theater during the summer following King’s death in 2012.
“There were very few people who actually embraced him beyond his symbolic status when he passed,” Smith says. “I was moved. I felt like I lost someone who was close to me, and I wanted to know why.”
Smith won a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) for the show in 2015 and Spike Lee filmed an outdoor performance in Brooklyn in 2017 that is available on Netflix. Smith has appeared in many of Lee’s films, including Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and Summer of Sam.
King’s story has become timely again in light of police violence against black people and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Several of Smith’s projects remain timely. He is performing his solo show about Frederick Douglass on the bicentennial of the writer and abolitionist’s birth. In June, Smith did a show as a double bill with the Branford Marsalis Quartet in New York. Marsalis performed the national anthem on saxophone and the quartet did a version of Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bookend Smith’s delivery of Douglass’ speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July.”
Guenveur says jazz has helped him with his understanding of performance. He currently is working on a solo show about Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank, the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust.