Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance at BRIC, inspired by the 1991 beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, is a beautiful and stunning work of art. Smith’s voice on racial tension and discrimination in the United States is brilliantly authentic, fearless, and raw. As he presents a compelling one-man show, Smith makes a bold statement, telling the world that racial prejudice is much more serious than many perceive it to be.
A white square is illuminated in a mostly dark room, with a lone microphone laying uselessly on it. A well-built, African-American man walks out and picks up the microphone. Despite what the audience may expect of a tribute to Rodney King, he starts his performance saying, “Fuck you, Rodney King.” However, as Roger Guenveur Smith goes on, his monologue turns around, attacking the racists that have and continue to exist in this world. As he talks, the question of who the enemies are comes up more than once. Are the police officers who attacked King the only abusive racists out there? The more you listen to Smith, the more you realize they’re not even close to being the only ones.
Roger Smith doesn’t just use his voice, but incorporates his body into the act several times in essential ways. The most memorable of these physical expressions is when he spits blood. The image of the beating of Rodney King would not be complete without Smith projecting spit into the air, comparing it to blood. His physical appearance was intriguing as well. His loose black shirt, baggy jeans, and shoeless feet said so much before Smith even uttered a word. Judging a person based on their appearance was a vital point to the content of his performance, making his dress so much more important.
The most prominent part of Roger Smith’s performance was his references to recent events and their relationship to the past. Although his main focus is Rodney King, he connects it to the recent death of Eric Garner by police officers, sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby, and the overall racial tension that still exists. A heart-wrenching and unforgettable moment in his monologue is his rendition of Rodney King’s speech to the black community after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. He portrays King as a fragile, soft-spoken man, choking up during his speech. When Smith said the words, “I can’t breathe” – the last words of Eric Garner as he was held in a headlock by a New York City police officer – there was a wave of emotion in the room, and the performance suddenly became completely relevant.
By the end of Roger Guenveur Smith’s presentation, one may ask if racial discrimination will ever disappear. Smith’s performance wasn’t just an awakening; it was a warning. It smacked the audience members in the face and said, “Look at the problem! It’s right in front of you!” And although Smith was focused mainly on Rodney King and his situation twenty years ago, the performance could not have had more significance regarding contemporary events. Events such the shooting of Michael Brown or the choking of Eric Garner simply remind us of a situation that shouldn’t exist. Roger Guenveur Smith tells us about this situation, making us experience these moments of racial bias in painful, yet enlightening detail. He has such a keen sense of what needs to be done, and his best way of expressing that is through the medium of acting, which he has mastered. His talent is worth applauding, maybe more than once, because without someone like him, the world would be in a state of darkness, descending into an abyss that it wouldn’t be able to come out of. He reminded his audience of a vital part of human existence: to treat every human with respect, and to not be the problem the world wants to do away with, but to be the solution the world needs.