Roger Guenveur Smith Q&A

Tue, Mar 29, 2011

Actor, writer, and director Roger Guenveur Smith returns to the Wex April 7-10 with his acclaimed solo production Juan and John, which weaves the intense and charged story of the relationship between baseball greats Juan Marichal and John Roseboro into the fabric of the social and political upheavals of 1960s and 1970s America.

The Obie Award-winning Smith has a long and varied body of work, including his much-lauded stage production A Huey P. Newton Story (presented at the Wex in 1998), as well as extensive film work with directors such as Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing), Ridley Scott (American Gangster), Abel Ferrara (King of New York), John Singleton (Poetic Justice), and Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), among many others. Smith was kind enough to answer some questions for us about Juan and John, working with Spike Lee, baseball, and much more.

Q: What was it like seeing the fight between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro  as a child?

John Roseboro was a hero to me, not necessarily because he was a great player on a great team, but because I met him at a community event and he gave me a picture of himself in his catcher's gear, and autographed it. So, to see him on my television screen, bleeding in black and white, was particularly traumatic.

Q: Did race play a part in your interpretation of it then or is it only in adulthood that you see that connection?

Friday night, the 13th of August, 1965, my father took me to see the Dodgers play the Pirates. (The Dodgers won, 3-1; the great Roberto Clemente went hitless.) I suppose it was an intended distraction from the conflagration-in-progress called the Watts Riot, which had been kindled two nights before and whose flames were visible now, even miles away, at Dodger Stadium. We left the game to go to my parents' business, a motel on the curfew zone's perimeter. It was there that I witnessed the looting and the burning of several neighboring establishments as my father stood sentry in front of his, the "black-owned" sign come to life. That night's mantra was "burn baby burn" and I would chant it the next week as I torched the baseball card of the villainous Juan Marichal. I was ten.

My rage was not explicitly "racial." Marichal was obviously a man of color and bore a closer resemblance to my family than did Roseboro. That type of animosity I probably reserved for the National Guard, whose tanks patrolled my neighborhood, and who had put a loaded rifle to my big brother's head. I would learn much later the complexities of Juan and John's black-on-black moment: two men with essentially the same name, whose mutual struggle was not so much against each other as it was against Jim Crow.

Q: Your theatrical works tend to use projections. They further the story; but do you see them as playing a specific role in your works or do they always demonstrate a specific aspect of the shows?

I've often used projections to complement my performances. For Juan and John, my longtime colleague Marc Anthony Thompson has constructed both audio and visual components, that we might challenge the collective imagination and provide an archival context as well. The sweep of my work is quite frequently non-linear and with sound and projection we root the play, and then reroute it-- chronologically, thematically, and stylistically.

Q: You interviewed Juan Marichal and family members of both players in the development of the piece. What was that experience like and how did their thoughts/words influence the structure of the show?

I was blessed to have been able to consult both the Marichal and Roseboro families. And of course it was terrifying to meet Juan Marichal, whom I had hated with the passion that only a boy whose nickname was 'Roger Dodger' could muster. But he quickly put me at ease, discussing with candor an incident that continues to haunt us both, even as it's obvious that it was a moment in violent contrast to his gentle nature.

And it was obvious too that the late John Roseboro's family didn't not want him to be defined by the events of August 22, 1965, or even by his distinguished career behind the plate. His daughter eulogized him as "The Man Behind the Mask" and so my journey--from Los Angeles to Santo Domingo--has necessarily been one of revelation.

Q: Baseball is commonly used as a metaphor. Is it in this piece? For what?

Baseball is famously called the Great National Pastime, and on its field the great American dilemma of race continues to be played out. (Eminent scholar of the Dominican game, Rob Ruck, has titled his new book Raceball.)

It is also a game of exquisitely controlled violence, of biblical dimensions: the sling, the stone, the fratricidal impulses that are clothed in flannel and pinstripes. The professional game has been increasingly dominated by Latinos players, and this summer's All Star Game is scheduled to be played in an Arizona increasingly hostile to Latino interests. Again, "the boy's game played by men" is transformed into a battlefield.

Q: How did the conflicts that were going on in the world (race riots in Watts, Vietnam) frame the confrontation that occurred at home plate in San Francisco for you?

In August '65 Roseboro's family was in an incendiary South Los Angeles, Marichal's in a no-less incendiary Dominican Republic, then occupied by 20,000 U.S. troops. Our napalm-infused engagement in Southeast Asia was heating up as well. Athletics, and athletes, do not exist in an apolitical vacuum. Juan and John's bloody encounter was borne of a bloody era, and exposed two men not simply under the pressure of a hotly-contested pennant race.

Q: Does what you've learned about Marichal & Roseboro's complex relationship inform your personal life today?

Marichal and Roseboro were able to transcend their conflict after negotiating an arduous (and litigious) path of reconciliation. Their detente, though scrupulously private (they rejected a public handshake at the top of the '66 season) was forged in the great public interest. When Marichal oddly concluded his career as a Dodger, it was Roseboro who called a press conference urging the people of Los Angeles to welcome his former assailant. I was not among the forgiving. Marichal had bloodied both Roseboro's skull and my childhood innocence, a laceration that was more deeply felt, and slower to heal. But I would learn from Juan and John's story, and from my own, that the greatest weapon of mass destruction is not the baseball bat, and that the head is not as vulnerable as the heart.

Q: Finally, you were born in Berkeley, but live in L.A. Is there any internal conflict when the Dodgers and Giants play now?

I grew up a Dodgers' fan because my father was a Dodgers' fan. And my father was a Dodgers' fan because of Jackie Robinson. So I suppose that I have always, like Tommy Lasorda, bled Dodger Blue.

Q: Spike Lee, who you've worked with, was the last recipient of the Wexner Prize (for lifetime achievement). How has Mr. Lee's career arc mirrored your own?

I've worked with Spike Lee more than any other actor ( unless one counts my classmate John Turturro's turn as the voice of the dog in Summer of Sam).

I was fascinated when i saw She's Gotta Have It and sat through it twice, immediately pursuing an audition for his next film, School Daze, which would be the first of eight collaborations (if one counts Tales From the Hood, which he produced, or Jungle Fever, from which I was cut). Our interests have intersected at every turn, from Do the Right Thing, for which I improvised the stuttering street artist Smiley, to A Huey P. Newton Story a solo performance which I adapted into a telefilm and which I, wisely I think, hired Spike to direct.

Spike has literally transformed the complexion of American filmmaking, and has prolifically demonstrated a rare acuity in a variety of genres. It's unfortunate that he's a Knicks' fan.

Neutral Milk Hotel

Tickets for Next@Wex Fest 2014—with headliner Neutral Milk Hotel, as well as Circulatory System and Connections—on sale now.

Hateship Loveship

Join us on May 2 as director Liza Johnson introduces a special advance screening of her new film Hateship Loveship (starring Kristen Wiig).