The Personal Historical: Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith is a man who knows his history. But the writer-performer doesn’t just know it, he lets it under his skin, manipulates it, re-imagines it, and embodies it in shows that are as much about the here-and-now as they are about where we came from. Whether he’s taking on Frederick Douglass or Huey P. Newton—conjuring a Creole social club during Mardi Gras, or the Watts Towers in his native Los Angeles—Smith is a showman before a historian (at Yale, he left his graduate studies in History for the Drama School), often interweaving his riveting, electric solo performances with music by frequent collaborator Marc Anthony Thompson of Chocolate Genius.
Now, Smith is in the throes of creation with Juan and John, playing through December 20 in the Public Theater’s LAB Series, for which all tickets are $10. The show’s named for baseball’s most famous fight: when Dominican pitcher Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants used his bat to club Los Angeles Dodger John Roseboro on the side of the head during a 1965 battle for the pennant at Candlestick Park. As Smith and I ride the elevator to the Public’s LuEsther Hall (where he performed his Obie-winning A Huey P. Newton Story in 1997), he takes a vintage Juan Marichal baseball card out of his wallet. “That’s where this show began,” he says, handing me the piece of history. But this time, it’s personal. “That’s a replacement. The first one, I burned.”
Kathryn Walat (Rail): What drew you to the Juan Marichal vs. John Roseboro incident?
Roger Guenveur Smith: I was watching it on television, live. I was 10 years old, and a Dodgers fan, and I was so traumatized by Marichal hitting my hero Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat that I performed a very rash act of my own [laughs]. I destroyed Mr. Marichal’s baseball card in the same way that I had seen my neighborhood being destroyed a couple of weeks previously during the Watt’s riot.
The great story about Marichal and Roseboro is that after not talking to each other, understandably, for about ten years, they became great friends. Roseboro actually worked in the Dominican Republic as a manager of a team, and when he died in 2002, Juan Marichal was an honorary pallbearer and gave a beautiful eulogy.
Rail: How do you think that happened?
Smith: I think the decency of both men emerged. They were able to transcend baseball as a war experience, and emerge from it as real people, who by all accounts are and were tremendous individuals.
Rail: After your immediate rage, watching that as a boy, how did you make sense of it?
Smith: It was particularly traumatic for me, to witness that kind of violence, because John Roseboro was someone that I had known not only as a Dodger, but had also met at a community event, where he had given me an autograph. So that was something that I was trying to make sense of, but couldn’t articulate until the year 2009, I suppose.
Rail: Why has it surfaced in your life now?
Smith: Therapeutically, we always go back to crises of childhood to try to understand who we are in the current moment. And this piece is not simply an exercise in nostalgia; none of my pieces could be called that. I’m trying to talk to ancient themes—forgiveness, rage, retribution, redemption—in very personal ways, as I negotiate who I am as a man and a father, who’s trying to tell these stories on stage. My own daughter told me—she’s 16 now—she doesn’t know anything about me unless she sees me on stage.
Rail: How does that make you feel?
Smith: A very therapeutic question [laughs]; it’s actually in the play. Well, I think my daughter and I are both negotiating how to reveal to each other how we feel. That’s the challenge probably of every parent and child. And with my work, the challenge is, how do I emerge as a person out of these historical characters?
I’m biographically obsessed. I read the Encyclopedia Britannica, for fun, as a child. But unlike other soloists who have a penchant for self-revelation—like Spalding Gray and Charlayne Woodard, who we feel we know as a people through their work—my memoir has been couched in history and biography. I think for the first time an iceberg of self-consciousness is emerging with this piece. It’s a great challenge for me.
Rail: Do you write the text down as you’re creating it?
Smith: The process of creation has been different for each piece. Sometimes it’s an adaptation of archival material, such as with Frederick Douglass Now, which is book-ended by pre-scripted original writing. Inside the Creole Mafia, created and performed with Mark Broyard, is a structured improvisation on intra-racial conflict. A Huey P. Newton Story was developed with Marc Anthony Thompson, who describes it as a song cycle in which we sing the same songs every night, but in a different way. It was never scripted until I adapted it into a film, and had to have something for Spike Lee and his crew.
Rail: How similar was the show, from night to night?
Smith: They’re similar only in that we sang the same songs. I tell people that I think I’ve learned more by listening to musicians than I have in any acting workshop. It’s the great jazz musicians like Branford Marsalis who can go to the Village Vanguard and play “April in Paris,” every night, two sets a night, for five nights, but never play it the same way. I think that as actors, and actor-writers, we’re still trying to catch up to what the great musicians have been doing for a long time.
Juan and John is a structured improvisation, and we’re developing that structure now. I’m working with an associate director, Patricia McGregor, who is a very talented young woman out of Yale School of Drama, and with Marc Anthony, who is doing not only sound design but also visual design. We’ve divided the play into innings, since this is baseball themed. So we have nine innings, including the seventh inning stretch.
Rail: What role does Marc Anthony Thompson play in terms of your process?
Smith: We are Juan and John, the two-head Hydra [laughs], and we’ve been doing it since 1992. We started off right in this building with Christopher Columbus 1992, in which I played Columbus as a lounge entertainer who has political aspirations and runs a travel agency on the side. Marc Anthony did live sound design, and he also played a homeless DJ, who ultimately transforms Columbus into a black man by administering the 56 blows that Rodney King got.
Rail: One thing that really struck me while watching A Huey P. Newton Story was the way the audience responded vocally during the piece—which is rare in the theater—and how you as a performer made that part of the show.
Smith: I’ve always enjoyed acknowledging the real moment, not only in the theater, but also outside. When we were doing Huey—right here in this room where we are now—Biggie Smalls, Christopher Wallace, was murdered in Los Angeles, and there was a tremendous outpouring of affection, particularly in Brooklyn where he grew up.
I had to somehow incorporate that into the show, because that was what was reverberating in everyone’s mind, and it had a lot to do with Huey, because here was a young poet who was cut down in his prime. So I imagined that Huey had perhaps seen Biggie Smalls as a child, on some sort of PBS documentary on the youth of Brooklyn, and they ask him what does he want to be when he grows up, and he says he wants to be either a gangster or a rapper.
With this show, yes, there will be opportunities for the audience to function voyeuristically, but there will also be opportunities for the audience to participate in unexpected ways, as always [laughs]. I enjoy tearing down the wall, and building it back up, and putting a little hole in it, and peaking through it.
Rail: In this show, do you embody the characters of Juan and John, or are you appearing as yourself?
Smith: I have done plenty of different “characters” within the context of my pieces, but that’s not really what I’m known for. Anna Deveare Smith of course is brilliant at that. Danny Hoch. Sarah Jones. But I’m really trying to find the multiple voices within the solitary character, to find a refraction of not only these two gentlemen, who as very decent individuals had this one moment of madness.
It’s an experiment in the psyche. How do we reconcile the good and the bad? My mother told me: Son, there’s always a guardian angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other one, which way are you going to turn?
It’s interesting that the protagonists are named Juan and John; essentially, the same name. And it’s a war, yes, on the baseball diamond, and it’s a war in Vietnam, and it’s a war in the Dominican Republic, it’s a war in Watts. But it’s also a war being waged within the head. It’s the head of John Roseboro, it’s the head of Juan Marichal—and it’s in Roger Guenveur Smith’s head as well. That’s the great battle being fought here.
Rail: Anything else you’d like to add?
RGS: Just remind people that it’s ten bucks, and that’s one of the great bargains in this city. You can hardly see a movie for that. It will hopefully allow a lot of people to come and support this work, and to have an evening in the theater, which is one of civilization’s great opportunities for communal experience.
John and Juan runs through December 20th at the Public Theater, Manhattan. Tix: $10; visit www.publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555.
Kathryn Walat is a playwright whose work includes Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, the historically based Bleeding Kansas, and her latest play, Creation.
KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright who currently splits her time between New York and Savannah. She's working on a commission for MCC Theater, called See Bat Fly.