The MultiCultural Center hosted award-winning actor, writer and director Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo act titled “Rodney King” last Thursday evening in the MCC Theater.
The free show explored the life of Rodney King, an African-American construction worker whose 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles police became a pivotal event of racial tensions in the United States. The incident led to the acquittal of the four officers accused of King’s beating, as well as a week of race riots, which resulted in more than 55 deaths and 600 destroyed buildings. In mid-June of 2012, King, age 47, was found dead in the swimming pool at his home in Rialto, California.
Smith’s show started with the bold introductory phrase, “Fuck Rodney King in his ass,” which alluded to a song by American rapper Willie D. Smith, then proceeded to recite the entire song, titled “Fuck Rodney King.” Following his performance, Smith sat down with English and black studies professor Stephanie Batiste to address the crowd in an open Q&A session with the audience.
According to Smith, he chose to begin his performance with Willie D’s complete set of song lyrics because he believed it was a raw and important way for audience members to understand the implications behind King’s story, especially since Smith was performing on the anniversary of day the song was created.
“I thought it was important to hear that — the entire speech, not a truncated version, not a comedic version, but the entire speech that [Willie D] made on this day — May 1: May Day, 1992,” Smith said.
Smith said the news that King had died in his backyard was “alarming for several reasons,” saying King’s life took an “end in the deep end.” He said this sudden loss was saddening for him, especially after all of the positive reception King’s story received in public media.
“He had a book out called Rodney King: The Riot Within; he was doing book tours; he was doing speaking engagements. He was on the up-and-up, and those of us who kept Rodney close in our hearts wished him the best,” Smith said. “It was a spectacular tragedy that we lost him, particularly the way we did.”
The King riots in 1992 left a crucial impact on Smith, and he said this historical event along with the Watts Riots — a six-day race riot that took place in Los Angeles in 1965 — “forged” his life.
“That was kind of the anvil and the focal of my life, of my youth — two extraordinary, violent events which I witnessed,” Smith said.
Alexis Wright, a fourth-year black studies major and co-president of the Black Student Union, said the show held a significant message because King’s story involved a “racialized incident” that was obvious and had the potential to affect all kinds of audience members.
“He was beat by white cops,” Wright said. “[The performance] was about being aware of the really dire consequences of what racial profiling can be — the emotional toll it takes on people, as well as the physical toll, and the consequences it can have on people.”
African Black Coalition Co-Chair of BSU Aja Marshall, a third-year communication and film and media studies double major, said the show was an “interesting” and new experience to bring to the MCC. Marshall said Smith’s performance was multifaceted, using the outlet of artistic performance to explore topics of racism and violence.
“The [MCC] have a lot of different things, but I personally like plays, so for anybody who is into plays, I think it’s really cool to incorporate those ideas into this,” Marshall said.
MCC Event Programmer Ruby Mojarro said Smith’s performance was “powerful” in how it revealed the continued impact that the Rodney King riots still have on the greater Los Angeles community.
“Effects from the riots, I’m sure, are still around in L.A.,” Majarro said. “The issues that were brought up during the riots haven’t left, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why it’s still so relevant — because these issues are still around.”
The event was co-sponsored by American Cultures & Global Contexts, Anti-Racism, Inc., the Black-Student Union and Hemispheric South/s Research Initiative.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 5, 2014 edition of the Daily Nexus.