Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show
The stage and film actor aims for impressionism rather than impersonation in his solo pieces, including his new show at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, ‘Juan and John.’
By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
May 17, 2011
At a youthful 55, Roger Guenveur Smith is at least a few decades too old to carry baseball cards in his wallet, but the one he takes out to show has a special meaning.
The memories he discusses on the outdoor patio of an Echo Park coffee shop are not serene: The card — which he found at a swap meet a few years ago — is a replacement for one he burned more than 40 years ago.
On the card is Juan Marichal — then a San Francisco Giants pitcher — who, one summer day in 1965, at bat in the third inning of a close game, hauled off and hit Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, who he thought had provoked him. He hit Roseboro hard, with his bat, in the head, three times — enough to draw blood from a 2-inch gash.
The event came at an impressionable time for the young Smith, who had grown up in Leimert Park idolizing Roseboro. He even met him recently at a community event.
“So I had a real emotional investment,” says Smith. “Juan Marichal became the biggest villain of my childhood. And I had just witnessed the torching of Western Avenue, just one week before. I had just turned 10, that summer.” The summer of the Watts riots, that is.
As Smith became a young man, the conflict continued to sting, but it deepened into a layered set of American problems involving not just sports but race (Marichal was born in the Dominican Republic; Roseboro was black), family, Catholicism, violence and masculinity.
The fight is the seed of his one-man show, “Juan and John,” in which Smith inhabits both men and their pent-up time and place. The show begins a two-week run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Tuesday.
The nature of a solo show required him to set childhood allegiances aside. Smith can’t really take sides. “In playing Juan Marichal and John Roseboro, I have to invest in both men,” the actor says. “For better or worse.”
“Juan and John,” which looks at tensions between these men with the broadest possible lens, is the latest but not the first of Smith’s explorations into the American heart and mind. He’s developed — alongside a film and TV acting career that has included work with directors Spike Lee and Ridley Scott — a cottage industry of historically informed one-man shows that are simultaneously focused and wide-ranging.
These pieces, the first of which was “Frederick Douglass Now” from 1990, bring together the actor’s two abiding interests, history and performance.
It’s hard to reconcile Smith — a playful, physical guy who enthusiastically greets half the cafe’s dwellers by name, as if he were running for mayor — with the bookish images through which he recalls his childhood. He picked up his parents’ intellectual seriousness (he’s the son of a dentist and a judge) at an early age, and combined it with his interest in athletics and music.
“I was the kid who read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun,” he says, “and had a poster of the presidents on my wall.” Smith attended Occidental College, where he majored in American studies. After a year in London he headed to Yale’s master’s program in history; while completing his course work, he auditioned for the drama school “on a lark” and ended up earning a master’s there, alongside classmates John Turturro and Charles Dutton.
Smith began acting widely. He would end up with roles in movies such as “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “American Gangster.” But live theater always felt like his calling. His solo shows — all written and directed by him — include “Who Killed Bob Marley?,” “In Honor of Jean-Michel Basquiat” and “Christopher Columbus 1992.” (The Italian explorer is transformed into a black man, cornered by the Los Angeles Police Department, as Smith himself was after the Los Angeles riots.) In 2006, he performed “The Watts Tower Project” at the Douglas, as part of the “Solomania!” festival.
“I never wanted my pieces to be about impersonation,” Smith says. Rather, he’s trying for an Impressionist portrait, where a gesture or prop evokes the character. “I think it’s a challenge for an actor to make each character organically his or her own. And you don’t do that by incessant studying of videotape.”
Unlike solo performers who inhabit multiple characters (Anna Deavere Smith, Eric Bogosian, Danny Hoch) or describe autobiographical journeys (the late Spalding Gray), Smith typically concentrates on a single person, whose personal history he painstakingly mines. “This has given me the opportunity to pursue a kind of rigorous archival challenge, and an acting challenge. Theater is a place where I have more control over what I do and how I do it.”
One of his most successful shows was “A Huey P. Newton Story,” which Smith performed first at the Joseph Papp Public Theater and took on tour as far away as Belgium and the United Kingdom. Lee directed an adaptation of the piece in 2001.
The piece he’ll put on at the Kirk Douglas Theatre looks at characters who have a great deal in common. “This is about black on black violence — two guys with almost the same name — Juan and John. Both of them experienced the same Jim Crow laws,” having to enter in the backs of restaurants, playing in a league that was at the early stages of racial integration.
“It was a moment of madness — informed by the tightest pennant race in history, with two teams that had been rivals going way back,” he says. Sandy Koufax hit the peak of what would be a short, distinguished career. The incident also was framed by a tense political situation: “We have 23,000 troops in the Dominican Republic, because President Johnson thought this could become another Cuba,” Smith says.
Vietnam was simmering, and riots and fires lit up many southern cities.
After a difficult period, the two players reconciled, and when Marichal joined the Dodgers in 1975, Roseboro called a press conference to welcome him to the team. Smith — then a student at Occidental — was having none of it. “It turned me off so much,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe the Dodgers would betray history, that they would allow Juan Marichal to wear the hallowed Dodger blues.”
But the actor grew out of his grudge, and he later befriended the man he once resented. The story of Juan and John, he says, turns out to be essentially about forgiveness. “Juan Marichal said Roseboro forgiving him was the best thing in his life,” Smith says.
Smith recently appeared in the Jamaican film “Better Mus Come,” set during the violence and unrest of ’70s Jamaica; he plays a prime minister based on Michael Manley. He’s got a number of film projects in post-production.
On Independence Day this year, he’ll do a performance at the Bootleg Theatre, which he considers his home venue. “It’s a site-specific piece where we open up the window of the Bootleg and have a meditation on the fireworks and the Fourth of July. It has barn doors, so you get a great view of the city.”
The performance — heavily improvised — will be inspired by “the present political moment,” he says with a smile. “Everyone who comes in will have to present their birth certificate.”
Mark Anthony Thompson, a longtime collaborator of Smith’s who records as Chocolate Genius, says, “I don’t think Roger even considers these solo pieces work. I think a lot of actors on Roger’s level, who aren’t green-lighting feature films on their own, are waiting for the phone to ring.
“Roger is deeply committed to live theater. He does these pieces because he has to. It’s not workaholic or nervous energy — he tells these stories the only way he knows how.”