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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 505-506
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A Huey P. Newton Story
A Huey P. Newton Story. By Roger Guenveur-Smith. Los Angeles Theatre Center, Los Angeles. 17 March 2001.
When Roger Guenveur-Smith performed A Huey P. Newton Story at Laney College in Oakland, both Newton's widow, Frederika Newton, and his older brother, Melvin, were in the audience. After the performance, Melvin shared how eerie it was to observe Guenveur-Smith's remarkable physical resemblance to the young Newton and his stunning recreation of Newton's physical quirks and vocal rhythms. Melvin and Frederika seemed to be seeing a ghost during the ninety-minute performance.
However, Guenveur-Smith's solo performance is more than just an exercise in theatrical phantasmagoria and keen impersonation. The show has been touring, on and off, for the last seven years and has been performed over 600 times in North American and European theatres, including San Francisco's Magic Theatre, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Actor's Theatre of Louisville, London's Barbican Centre, Brussels' Kaaitheater, and many other venues. Fittingly, the show closed in Los Angeles, where it began as a work-in-progress at the Mark Taper Forum in 1994. For those who have not seen the production, Guenveur-Smith's performance has been preserved on film; the New York production was taped by director Spike Lee and screened on the Black Entertainment Channel in June of 2001. The film is also scheduled to appear on PBS and the African Heritage Network.
The play's popularity can be attributed to the production's compelling approach to historical representation and solo performance. In many respects, the show repudiates the "wax figure" approach to historical memory. Guenveur-Smith deliberately avoids the proverbial stroll down memory lane commonplace in plays about pop culture icons (William Luce's Barrymore is a recent example of this trend). Instead of merely recounting the "greatest hits" of Newton's career, Guenveur-Smith places his version of Newton in our historical moment; he is alive and in the flesh--breathing, smoking, and telling jokes to the audience. Guenveur-Smith avoids the epic events in Newton's life. For example, the historic "shoot out" at the Panther Headquarters and Newton's famous Alameda County Court House trial in 1968 are omitted. A Huey P. Newton Story presents itself as an informal conversation with the charismatic revolutionary as if he were alive today; the script and Guenveur-Smith's performance are largely assembled from Newton's autobiography Revolutionary Suicide and various interviews. [End Page 505]
The play begins with an audio-montage of media clips spanning Newton's career, including a report of a 1989 drug-related incident during which Newton was gunned down. Then, Guenveur-Smith's Newton takes the stage and begins tapping the microphone and gesturing to the audience ("Is this thing on? Testing 1-2-3. Can you hear me?"). This awkward moment lasts for quite some time. After a lengthy pause, the audience reluctantly responds to his question and reassures him that the equipment works. This odd opening moment, significantly, breaks down not only the distance between the performer and the audience but the mood of solemnity that typically accompanies the appearance of a historical personage in a traditional history play. By breaking the frame, Guenveur-Smith immediately establishes rapport with the audience; his intimate interaction with the spectators during the performance will be both affectionate and confrontational. The opening exchange also establishes a context for an African American call-and-response tradition, suggesting that the audience will play an integral role in the performative event.
Guenveur-Smith's narrative is so free flowing and spontaneous that it appears to be entirely improvised. At the beginning of the show, he chastises members of the audience for showing up ten minutes late and others for interrupting the performance ("Close those doors! People think it's the movies or something!"). A Huey P. Newton Story steps in and out of history and is peppered with topical references to contemporary issues and events (Newton labels the LAPD...