Rodney King: The Power of a Play
The Summer Institute on Stepping Towards Racial Equity has been a very rich process up until now. As a group we have used many different tools and entries into conversations to look at ideas about race and racism. It is a lot to assimilate! Each day I gain more perspective on the different components we have looked at. Today I want to circle back around to our third day when we had the privilege to see a brilliant one man play called Rodney King by Roger Guenveur Smith.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Rodney King’s story, I will provide a brief and synopsis. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was severely beaten by numerous Los Angeles police officers. Unbeknownst to them a civilian recorded the beating and released it to the media. A little over a year later, on April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury in the trial found the officers not guilty. There were then five days of violent rioting in LA and over 50 people were killed, many people were injured, and businesses were looted and burned.
I remember hearing about the verdict. I had just turned eleven years old. I remember the look of disappointment on my parents’ faces and the grim quiet that settled in the house until my mother explained to me how angry she was. I had a different response – I sat watching the footage of all the ensuing violence and I was horrified and devastated to see the legacy of racism I was inheriting as a little girl. It felt enormous to my eleven year old frame. I felt so unequipped to know what healing could look like so that I would never see something like that again. What I remember most was that although some individuals stepped forward to help each other, the National Guard did not arrive until after four days of rioting. And I remember the fires. So much of LA was on fire.
Regarding the play, let me say how much gratitude towards Jacqueline Lawton, one of the Creative Partners/Presenters on the Dallas Faces Race project and this Summer Institute. Jacqueline is a playwright and a dramaturge (a person who does a lot of the research and development for plays). She was so gracious as to create a dramaturgy packet, about various aspects of the play – including the history of Rodney King and the 1992 LA Riots along with pictures, information on the actor and his process in creating the play and much more!
I stayed up late the night before the play reading the information, and though I was really familiar with the Rodney King beating, trial, and the riots – it was amazing to learn new facts, to be reminded about pieces of the story I’d forgotten, and to know why the actor was engaging with the story. For me, I almost never have this much of a lens into a piece of work that I am going to receive and it totally changed the way I could view it.
The set was simple and Smith was barefoot and in jeans and a t
After the play I felt a bit numb, overwhelmed with the enormity of the situation and the play. After plays I often move into a period of silence and reflection and then maybe I discuss it with a friend who also attended. I remembered that eleven year old girl who was so overwhelmed. After this play, Dance Exchange offered a movement workshop as a way to be with the material of the play and our feelings.
It was extraordinary to re-experience the play collectively, each of us weaving various images, texts, and responses we had to the content into our own dance. Thereafter we got to watch several people share what they had created. So much richness emerged – people remembered and were impacted so differently than me – and I got to see instead of hear an audience response. The fact that everyone had a turn was significant to me a well because some times in dialogue there is not time to hear from everyone and people who communicate better with their bodies or nonverbally don’t have an opportunity to do so. In this setting, people dropped into profound feelings that were there but were hard to feel.
Prior to the play, we each received a small slip of paper asking us – is this conversation still important to you? As an African American woman I feel a lot of grief that my response to that question is a definitive yes. Since the Rodney King verdict countless of people of color (and other people as well) have experienced police brutality and injustice in the judicial system. The slip of paper also shared that as recently as a week before the play a woman of color was beaten in California. I live in California. This happens to my neighbors, to my friends, and I am always worried it could happen to me. It was nice to have the community hold that part of my reality with me, even if only for a little while, inside of the movement workshop.
The play and workshop in conjunction were very powerful to me. The play, as most of my favorite plays do, took a very specific and nuanced character and situation and connected it to larger more timeless and universal themes. The workshop then took the varied responses and feelings of each participant and helped connect all of us to a sense of a shared or collective experience. That to me was extraordinarily powerful and moving. That eleven year old part of me experienced a glimmer of hope.