Combining captivating portrayals of various characters with the pulse of beat poetry, PlayMakers’ one man show, "Rodney King", presents a multifaceted take on America’s complicated relationship with race.
Staged in Kenan Theatre, “Rodney King” opens PlayMakers’ 2014 season with a rhythm-charged glimpse into the world Rodney King, whose assault by members of the Los Angeles police department became the symbolic spark of the city’s 1992 riots.
The play was written and performed in its entirety by Roger Guenveur Smith, whose relentless intensity and masterful diction wove together a powerfully poetic chronicle of King’s ordeal.
The show opens with a jarring combination of melodic tones and audio tracks from news reports covering King’s assault. As the sounds fluctuate, different voices can be heard seemingly praising or mocking the man, giving the audience a sense that the person and his message are equally complex.
From there, a square of light illuminates Smith, who adopts the persona of a disgruntled rapper, brutally assailing King. As the audience reels at the verbal attack, Smith transitions into a calming, raspy commentary on King — not only as an icon, but as a human being.
Right from the start, Smith awes the audience with sounds and stories of hatred, brutality and bloodshed, only to lull them back into a sense of calm with the smooth cadence of his narration. This bating of the audience and their sensibilities not only served to hold attention, but made each word Smith uttered seemingly vital to the play’s fluctuating narrative.
His movement also added to the immense gravity of the language. As Smith transitioned seamlessly between characters and narration, his posture and action would radically modify to convey his tone. This gave an air of motion to his speech, making his words almost visible as they were said.
It’s also important to note the sense of ambiguity given by the play’s poetic approach. Many of the on and off beat deliveries were met with nervous laughs or stony silence from the audience, unsure whether they were meant to divine something comedic or dark from Smith’s composition.
Though somewhat risky, this style of performance actually brings a highly contemplative element to the show, forcing those watching to genuinely examine the dialogue and think about the different contexts through which it can be applied.
Smith’s dynamic appropriation of multiple viewpoints, as well as his striking dialogue and physicality, managed not only to enthrall his audience, but left them with an overwhelming sense of the racial continuum in the United States. Rodney King, both the man and icon, serve as Smith’s reminder of who we are and where we are going.
PlayMaker's "Rodney King" runs Tuesday, Sept. 2 through Sunday, Sept. 7 at UNC's Kenan Theater. Performances start at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.
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