I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Roger Guenveur Smith’s stuttering youth standing in the street with a photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in his hand is without a doubt the most poignant moment of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. I was also duly impressed by how Roger knocked the clownish performers of Culture Clash into new realms of complexity with his direction of their current hit Radio Mambo. When he stormed into The Public Theater in February as Huey Newton, I was very curious to see what he had done with yet another symbolically charged political and cultural figure. It’s hard not to be blown away from the start by how much Roger looks like Huey. For nearly two hours he sat in a chair, chain smoking herbal cigarettes, talking incessantly and thrashing and twitching to evoke the physical toll of Newton’s drug use. His stunning, tragi-comic version of the former Black Panther draws one in via uncanny impersonation, confessions that reveal Newton’s personal mythology, and critical assessment of his transformation into a public persona by a hostile mainstream media on the one hand, and adulatory audiences on the other.
Trying to talk to Roger about Huey, and about his Huey, I would soon learn, was not easy. Ironically, though he’s an actor best known for his nuanced explorations of black male historical figures, and was bursting with commentary about his transposition of jazz improvisational style to theatrical presentation, he resisted many of my questions about theater, performance, black masculinity and cultural specificity. Though he stressed that his version of Newton was drawn from historical research, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s as much shape-shifting going on when Roger is at the mike as when Huey is.
Coco Fusco Why did you want to create a play about Huey P. Newton?
Roger Guenveur Smith Like most Americans, I only knew Huey as that man on the poster or as those news blurbs in the ’80s: “Huey arrested in bar brawl.” “Huey gets Ph.D.” “Huey indicted for embezzling school funds.” “Huey murdered in front of crack house.” I wanted to know who he was.
CF Did you have any childhood memories of him?
RGS Sure, I had childhood memories of Huey. But, I didn’t really know who Huey was. I don’t think many people knew who Huey was. Very few people knew that he spoke in a high toned voice, in a Louisiana drawl. That he was shy. That he wasn’t a great public speaker. That he was short, and unlike his peers, didn’t have a very dynamic public personality.
CF Was it his death that sparked your interest in doing the piece or did you want to explore this kind of a character? Did you want to assess a political moment?
RGS When Huey died I was in the process of putting another piece together, Frederick Douglass Now. In an unconscious homage to Huey, I dressed Douglass in a black leather jacket. Frederick Douglass does this great speech, “Men of Color to Arms,” which was a recruitment speech for black soldiers during the Civil War. I used a projected image of Huey as an illustration of men of color to arms. So in a sense, Huey had been working on me for a while.
CF And why Huey and not any other Panther?
RGS I had a historical, psychological curiosity about this man, and I had the additional compelling element that people had told me throughout the years that I bore a certain resemblance to him … I never did hear Huey speak in person. I never met him. And I think that if I had I would certainly have been more intimidated about doing the piece than I have been.
CF Your version of Huey spends a good deal of time berating his audience. Do you think his original audiences, or your current ones, want that? This comes up often with so-called multi-cultural performance work. Sometimes we’re told we shouldn’t go too far or we risk alienating the audience. On the other hand, your version of Huey seems to be playing with a real desire for a certain barrier to be established, an attraction to a certain kind of aggression.
RGS Traditionally, artists and audiences have looked at theater as a sanctuary, as a safe place, a comfortable place. But I believe that theater is the place where we do the undoable and where we say the unsayable. Theater is where we commit murder.
CF So you don’t see it as an ethnically specific issue, as a culturally specific issue? I do think that there are ways in which black performers, for example, are criticized more often than whites for supposedly being too confrontational.
RGS There are points in the play when Huey’s going to jump off the platform and go off on somebody and knock him up side the head. And then he says, “Oh no, I didn’t come to berate you. I just … Look, let me share somethin’ with you. When I was a kid I couldn’t dance …” which throws them again, off kilter. That was Huey’s personality and that’s what the piece is: there’s a constant tension among the various aspects of Huey’s character.
CF So when you put together the script, did you think about how and where to shift from a more aggressive to a more seductive Huey?
RGS Look, let me say this: There is no script. I never wrote this play. I absorbed it from a comprehensive study of Huey’s work and interviews with him. It took form through the encouragement of sound designer Marc Anthony Thompson who said, “Sit down. Tell me the story.” Two hours went by and we had a “play.”
CF Did you record that interaction between the two of you?
CF You just talked.
RGS I just talked to Marc Anthony, as Huey. The character emerged—Huey emerged. I did not sit down and write a play. I wanted my absorption of this material to be absolutely organic. Because once something has been committed to the page, we as performers start playing the page. And that’s not real.
CF So every time you come out on stage, you do a different piece?
RGS Yes. The piece is framed absolutely differently every time. It’s a song cycle. We play the same songs every night, but we play them differently. Dizzy Gillespie never played “Salt Peanuts” the same way. Charlie Parker never played “Cocomo” the same way. Lester Young never played “Lester Leaps In” the same way.
CF How do you work it with Marc? Do you agree on a general structure that you’re going to fall into, or repeat?
RGS We have a series of songs. There’s “The Geek Road.” There’s “The Revolution Song.” There’s “The Orfeo Negro Song.”
CF How do you keep track of time?
RGS It’s an internal clock, an internal metronome. Louis Armstrong never had somebody with a clock next to him.
CF Yes, but there are jazz scores.
RGS There are jazz scores, yes, of course there are jazz scores, but there was also a time in jazz where they had to hit tunes in a certain amount of time because there’s only so much you could fit on wax. Okay, so internal metronome, you know, Robert Farris Thompson talks about it.
CF Can you tell me about performing for Huey’s family?
RGS It was a great challenge, a great honor, and I felt very blessed to be with his widow and brother and sister. His sister ran into me in the elevator before the show and was shocked because of the resemblance. And she told me after the show that whenever anything came on the radio or T.V. about Huey, she would always turn it off. She just didn’t want to deal with his image, post-mortem. And my show was the first thing about Huey that she had come to. Extraordinary experience. I mean, I sit up there talking about her. In the play I say, “My sister, Red, you call her Red, that get her upset, she start cryin’ through her freckles.” She told me, “You know, that was me, I was Red.” And I say in the play, “My brother Melvin, who taught me the Shakespeare.” Well Melvin was there. It’s church, you see. It’s church. And that’s what people don’t understand about a performer like Keith Antar Mason. Keith’s conducting a sacred service. Keith ain’t performing. He’s not entertaining. He is preaching. He’s invoking the loas. And you’re not going to understand that unless you grew up in that tradition, or you listen to the far end of the AM dial. (laughter) You know what I’m sayin’?
CF I guess so.
RGS Oh, the preacher’s gonna go off on you. He’s gonna go off. He’s gonna take you to hell and back.
CF Is that your model? Are you thinking about that sort of cadence when you’re onstage?
RGS I’m not thinkin’ about nothin’ but communicating in the moment. But that’s the tradition that I’m working in. Huey’s father was from the church. And sometimes Huey would say when he’d been talking for a long time, “Oh, you got me preachin’ my old man’s sermons.”
CF How do you direct yourself?
RGS When I was a kid, just like Huey, I listened to records over and over and over again and memorized stuff. And I drove people crazy. When I was a kid I had a picture of all the U.S. presidents on my wall and I had them all memorized. The vice presidents, as well. And I drove people crazy with that. That’s the tradition of performance that I come out of. I used to deejay. I used to rap. That, to me, was just another performance opportunity. To get out there and grab the mike and sweat on any given night.
CF But nobody’s calling this a performance art piece, they’re calling it a theater piece. Does that make a difference to you?
RGS Is there a difference? What is it?
CF I know what I think. But what is it for you?
RGS You could call it any number of things. You could call it entertainment. You could call it church. You could call it performance. You could call it theater. You can call it a political rally. It’s all of those things. Why must we compartmentalize? Why must we put an experience into a box? See, this too is what the play is about, because, as Huey says, “People want to put me in the box. And I realize that I’ll never get out of that box.”
CF There is a discussion in theater about what it means to work off a set script versus an unset script.
RGS You’re talking about theater from an American-Anglo tradition in which the script is written and perhaps a dramaturg is brought in, and then the director, and you have the company and a designer … Look, I could go out here on the corner right now and do a play. There’s a brother around the corner right now, he does theater every night. He was out there last night with a lamp. He said, “Ronald Reagan said, ‘All quiet on the set.’” That’s theater. A man pulled out a violin on the subway this morning. That’s theater.
CF Much of what you’re talking about is theorized as “the performative” and “the moment.” How do you incorporate the moment and the presence of yourself, and this other person who you’re inhabiting in that moment?
RGS There’s always the question of artifice, of creating a persona and then stripping that persona away. This is what we do when we acknowledge the present moment. We don’t try to pretend that we’re in 1967 because everyone knows that we’re in 1997. That’s the tension.
CF So how does a technician follow you if you’re constantly improvising?
RGS Wait a minute, the piece is a collaborative process between Marc Anthony and myself. Marc’s not just a hired gun technician.
CF I know that. He is working off of the energy that he gets from you in performance. How can one know from watching, that you are, to a certain extent, improvising off of a set structure and that the person who’s interacting with you is also working off of your energy? It could very well have been a track …
RGS Could have been.
CF … with a guy who is reading off a script.
RGS Might’ve been. You’ll only know if you come back again. Sometimes people think that the audience responses are from plants I’ve placed in the audience.
CF Let’s go to the issue of black masculinity.
RGS I don’t know anything about it.
CF But you’re putting it up there. It’s being dramatically stripped bare in a very emotionally revealing way.
RGS Look, Coco, the play is about Huey, it’s not about the black man. It’s not about black masculinity.
CF It is always going to be viewed in light of that larger issue because Huey Newton’s not just anybody, Roger. And the pose, the physical and psychological demeanor of the Black Panthers constituted an image. And that image represents a critical moment for understanding how black men are viewed in this society, and for that matter what “Black Power” signifies 30 years after its heyday.
RGS This is exactly why I choose to focus Huey on Huey. Huey in his own words. Huey looking into his mirror, cracked as it might be, in order to give a view of a man who, yes, is a black man who is in struggle with society, but yes, is also in struggle with himself. And whatever the audience can draw from that is going to, I’m sure, be commensurate with what they bring, what they take away. I never, ever, would be so presumptuous or even ambitious enough to say that this play is somehow going to represent or speak to issues of “black masculinity.”
CF But what if I said that it does.
RGS Then that’s your perspective. That’s what you bring and that’s what you take away. And that’s wonderful. But I have to keep my focus on Huey P. Newton 1942–1989.
CF I understand that you need to keep that focus when you’re performing, but right now you’re not. So you can kick back and you could think about it.
RGS But see, I don’t indulge in it. I don’t engage in it. I don’t, because not only am I trained in the theater, I’m also trained as a historian. I’m very cognizant of what needs to be footnoted and what doesn’t. So when we talk about the play, or Huey representing something, I constantly go back to what Huey has to say. What does he have to say about black masculinity?
CF Okay, what does he have to say?
RGS I don’t know. What did he say? Do you remember?
CF There are moments when your Huey teases the audience about their presumed fear of him as a black male.
RGS I can’t see anybody in the audience, Coco.
CF So are you talking to somebody you see, or to somebody you presume is there?
RGS Well, that’s the question. Do these people really exist, or are they just demons in Huey’s head?
CF If they are, then how he defines himself as a person, as a man, as a black man, has to do with who he thinks that other person is.
RGS Sure, and who he thinks he is. Or, is not.
CF So is it all psychological?
RGS Of course it’s not all psychological. It’s fucking visceral. I have the bruise on my back to prove it.
CF What Huey is or was goes beyond the physical and the psychological. He is somebody who was involved in politics. He is somebody who was involved in black politics. In a kind of identity politics, and what you’re doing with the character is going back and forth between a very personal, internal/subjective side and a very public side. That’s a way of approaching the representation of …
RGS Anyone! Anyone!
CF If this were 25 years ago, I doubt that putting the more abject elements of his persona on display as you do would have been accepted.
RGS It’s not 25 years ago. We’re not talking about William Styron and Nat Turner. We’re talking about Roger Guenveur Smith, playing Huey P. Newton. There are obviously things Huey has to say about black male identity throughout the piece. And, the fact that I’m doing it is interesting. A brother came up to me in San Francisco, I had on a Frederick Douglass t-shirt. He stepped back and said, “Damn, you’re the one, yeah. I saw the ad for your play on T.V. and said to myself, ’What are they doing having a white boy playing Frederick Douglass?” So Coco, when we talk about images of black, masculinity, whatever, I get it from both sides.
CF Let me put it another way. It seems to me that your view of Huey as tragically flawed, so to speak, fits into a larger cultural debate going on among members of our generation about the construction of gender. Your representation of Huey as vulnerable, complicated, even disturbed would simply not square with the cultural nationalist mandate of let’s say 25 years ago. But you’re putting it out there.
RGS Of course, that’s a given because that’s what we live with everyday, and, of course it flavors the performance. But, that’s part of the natural milieu, that’s what I bring into the theater. If I walk down the street and see the Daily News, do you think that’s going to flavor what I do in the theater? Fuck yeah, it’s going to flavor it! THE MAD BOMBER OF HARLEM, black man. Do you think that’s going to flavor what I do? Of course, and it flavors the perspective of the audience who comes to see what I do. That’s a given.
CF Okay, so what do you think of the fact that this very comfortable audience is coming and consuming that human tragedy?
RGS We come to the theater, we come to the church, to be consumed in tragedy. It’s Holy Week. People are going to church to relive a tragedy.
CF So there’s no difference for you between church and theater?
RGS This is the pageant that they play out. This is our pageant. This is the Huey P. Newton pageant, this is the passion play, and this is where we come in. Euripides, Sophocles, the Dogon people, whoever you want to talk about. This is the way we play it out. This is the way that we do it. This is ritual. This is church.
CF So you don’t see it as something particularly American, about being so intrigued by the story of real people?
RGS Well, sure, that is why People magazine was invented.
CF Well, are you not doing what People magazine is doing?
RGS People buy People magazine, people pay to come see the play, A Huey P. Newton Story.
CF But, what would happen, if you did a show that was about somebody who wasn’t real? About a character who didn’t have that kind of cache? What is our attraction to “realness”? What is it that brings people to see Anna Deveare Smith’s representations of real people?
RGS There are many people who come to see Huey who have expectations. People who knew Huey, who idolized him, come expecting, perhaps, a more heroic view. Other people come expecting, perhaps hoping, to see a somewhat degraded, pathetic figure. Other people come to discover someone that they had only heard about. They come expecting a history lesson, a black history diorama. Some people come expecting to see HBO or Showtime. We feel, as an audience, that we can consume personalities because we have grown up with the talk show format. We have grown up with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Arsenio, Cristina, Geraldo in our bedrooms. Channel surfing, next, next, next, next. I play with the idea that we’re a consumer culture, and we set these people up, and then, we consume them. We eat them. We build them up and then we tear them down.
CF You’re pointing out how this phenomenon appears all over the culture, and you’re putting yourself into that panorama. Maybe I’m just thick, but I keep asking myself, why is going to see somebody reincarnate a person so attractive? It happens over and over again. Why is it there’s no drama we like better in this country than one that we think is a real one? What draws you to working with historical figures? You did Frederick Douglass before Huey Newton.
RGS I’m a history buff. As I said, I memorized all of the U.S. presidents and vice presidents; when they were born, when they died, who they were married to, if they were married, and when their wives died, where they were born, what they achieved during the presidency, or what they didn’t achieve. That’s something that’s always fascinated me. My mother had a two volume book by J.A. Rogers called World’s Great Men of Color, and some of them were recognized as black men, some of them were not.
CF You’ve told me that there’s a jazz inspiration in the way that you work with Marc?
CF The style of presentation has a certain amount of structure and a certain amount of improvisation. Isn’t that an ethnically or culturally specific reference?
RGS Oh, that’s bullshit. I’m so tired of ethnospecificity.
CF So you’re not on the August Wilson side of the current debate about black theater?
RGS No, I’m not. I’m not on the Brustein side either.
CF So what is the issue for you?
RGS What is the issue? The issue is communicating on a nightly basis.
CF Yeah, but, Roger, don’t you think there’s something dangerous about placing the issue of quality outside the domain of the socio-political?
RGS My work has always existed within the political domain. I am a political animal, my parents were political creatures, my grandparents were political creatures. We are in and of America. That makes us political. What I’m doing is within that larger context. It’s within the smaller context as well when you look at Huey and all the things he had to say about politics, but that is not my motivating force. My motivating force is that I am the geek, I am trained to eat the raw chicken, and that is what I must do. Live music was playing when I was a child. I danced to that live music. A white man threw a nickel at me. I stooped to pick it up, and my mother said, “Don’t you dare stoop!” You know what that means then, don’t you? I always knew that performing was connected through some sort of dirty, commercial business, which had racial overtones, political overtones. So that’s always been a given for me since I was four years old. Always.
CF I hope I’m not pissing you off.
RGS No, look, this is not something that I feel overtly compelled to debate at fucking Town Hall. It is their problem, if they have to see this debate and have these people put on boxing gloves and have it refereed. Because I have acknowledged this all my life.
CF Then why do you talk about aesthetic quality as being something separate from the cultural references that you already admit structure your work?
RGS I didn’t say it was separate. I did not say that it was separate!
CF Okay, so then explain again.
RGS It’s part of a larger context and part of a smaller context as well.
CE But what I hear from you is that you don’t want to talk to me about cultural specificity because what you care about is just Huey the person, or just doing a good show.
RGS See, see, Coco, look, you can’t, these people want a line—BOMB, American Theater, New York Times. They want a line. I will not be relegated into these boxes. “Ethnic” artists quite often box ourselves. We ethnicize ourselves. It’s either this, or it’s that, and you’ve got to be here, or you’ve got to be there. You’ve got to be Anna Deveare Smith, or you’ve got to be August Wilson, or you’ve got to be George Wolfe; or Danny Hoch, or Tony Kushner; or Eric Bogosian, or Spalding Gray. If you’re asking me what I think about cultural specificity, I don’t think about it. I live it. People pay to come to see me and then I leave the theater and try to get a cab …
CF You do live right next to the Hollywood dream machine.
RGS I acknowledge that. My rapping name was Hollywatts. Hollywood and Watts. I grew up between the two mythologies.
CF But, don’t you think that Hollywood is the biggest box of all?
RGS Not necessarily. Hollywood is an extension of Washington, which is an extension of Jamestown.
CF You don’t feel that you have more latitude at The Public Theater than you do in a Hollywood film?
RGS Latitude … it depends on what “Hollywood” film it is. I’ve made more of an impression having done what I did in Do the Right Thing, a “Hollywood” film, than I have in any play I’ve ever done. The image that I introduced in that film of Martin Luther King shaking hands with Malcom X is now a standard international image, and I’m very happy to have made that contribution to the world. Not just to Ebony magazine, but to the world. So I’m not going to say that I have necessarily more latitude at The Public Theater than I do in a Spike Lee film.
CF Why does this annoy you?
RGS I don’t wake up dreaming about it. I don’t sit on the corner and wonder, Oh am I on the August Wilson side or the Brustein side? You know, I played Christopher Columbus in a play that I wrote. Can August Wilson accept that? Was it okay that I played Christopher Columbus? Was it cool, August?
CF So you think August Wilson is saying that you shouldn’t do that.
RGS That I can’t play a white man?
RGS Isn’t he? Oh, yes, he is. He’s saying that black people should play black people.
CF Do you think it’s that extreme?
RGS I’ve never been on Broadway though. August Wilson has been on Broadway. I’ve never been on Broadway. You hear what I’m saying? The problem is that Milan Kundera is referred to by Brustein as a “brilliant Czech writer,” yet James Baldwin is referred to as a “black writer.” Not a brilliant American writer. Not even an American writer. A black writer. Anyway I don’t want to talk about August Wilson. I think that’s an exploited discussion that is, once again, distracting us from issues that are important. Issues of work, of quality.
CF Is there a positive way you can think about the ethnic issue? Not a negative way.
RGS Of course there is. Of course. That too is a given. Nina Simone is a given, Louis Armstrong is a given, Branford Marsalis is a given, that we are the survivors is a given. That is a given since 1619, since 1492, we’ve been here getting our asses kicked, and we have survived. (RGS holds the tape recorder up to the speaker to draw attention to the music.) That’s why Keith Antar Mason pisses people off, ‘cause they don’t understand this. They can’t embrace that. That’s us. And, I ain’t never been to Africa. Closest I ever got to Africa is Brooklyn. So I’m not talking about Africa. I’m talking about the American experience, the Jamaican experience, the Brazilian experience, the Venezuelan experience, the Cubano experience, the L.A., DC, St. Louis, New Orleans experience. That’s what I’m talking about, and if you can’t see the positive vibe on that, then, c’mon. We’re the survivors—black survivors—that’s what Bob Marley said. But, who’s Bob’s father? Who was Bob’s father? A white man.
Coco Fusco is a New York based writer and interdisciplinary artist. She is the author of English Is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (The New Press, 1995).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee