Mar 28, 2017
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Interview with Roger Guenveur Smith: H. Newton, History and More
by Doniphan Blair
Director Spike Lee (rt) and actor Roger Guenveur Smith at the 25th anniversary screening of their masterful collaboration, 'Do the Right Thing', in 2004. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
ROGER GUENVEUR SMITH GREW UP IN
in Leimert Park, LA’s middleclass black neighborhood, the son of a dentist and a judge. From South Carolina and Virginia respectively, his mom and dad came to California seeking the opportunities denied them in the Jim Crow South.
As a kid, who read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun but also witnessed the Watts riots in 1965, he became interested in history and went to Yale for a PhD in history. But then, “On a whim, I auditioned for the [Yale] drama school, and was accepted, and I have been combining my interests ever since,” he told me in a recent phone conversation.
“I got to know Spike in LA, at a cattle call audition for ‘School Daze’ [Lee’s second film, 1988]. It became one of the more extraordinary collaborations in American cinema between an actor and a director.”
Roger Guenveur (pronounced GEN-ver) Smith played the stuttering, mentally-disabled man who became moral center of Lee’s third film, his standout masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing” (1989). “I created the character of Smiley, improvising right on the set after we determined the general character and what scenes he would be in.”
In addition to appearing in eight Spike Lee Joints, including “Malcolm X” (1992) and “Summer of Sam” (1999), Smith’s career flourished, playing a professor in the TV series “A Different World” (1990), appearing in HBO’s “Oz” (1997) and “K Street” (2003), and doing notable roles in “Final Destination” (2000) and “American Gangster’ (2007).
“What is most interesting about my career is the range of characters I had the opportunity to play, from Hamlet to [characters in] “The King of New York” , “Eve’s Bayou”  and “All About The Benjamins” —so-called high culture and low culture. I step in and out of it, and on and off the stage and screen.”
Arguably his most striking role, however, was the one he wrote for himself, “
A Huey P. Newton Story
”, his one-man show about the co-founder and central strategist of the Black Panthers.
After arduous research, including reviewing 100s of hours of Newton’s personal cassette recording, Smith came to conjure Huey P. Newton in a manner unparalleled in American theater, except perhaps Hal Holbrook’s rendering of Mark Twain.
Roger Guenveur Smith did over 600 improvised performances of 'A Huey P. Newton Story' world-wide. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
“When I was a kid, I saw Holbrook as Twain. It left an impression and helped inspire my creation of ‘Frederick Douglass Now’, my first solo piece at Occidental College in 1976.”
“A Huey P. Newton Story” astounded audiences as well as critics and Smith took numerous awards, including two Obies in 1997 and two Drama Desk nominations. “His stunning, tragi-comic version of the former Black Panther draws one in via uncanny impersonation,” wrote the New York performance artist and critic Coco Fusco, in
Bomb Magazine, 1997
“Traditionally, artists and audiences have looked at theater as a sanctuary, as a safe place, a comfortable place,” Smith explained to Fusco. “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.”
“I never wrote this play,” he continued. “There is no script… 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,’” which was improvised nightly, over 600 times, often with audience interaction.
After playing Off-Broadway and touring the country and the world, Smith got back with Lee to create the film version in 2001. Based very closely on the stage production, it took a Peabody in 2002.
Smith continued his unique personal-portrayal-improvised genre with “Juan and John”, about a fight between a San Francisco Giant and a Los Angeles Dodger in 1965, which he also witnessed as a child; “Inside the Creole Mafia”, done with Mark Broyard, a “not-too-dark” comedy about New Orleans colorism; and “Two Fires”, about the police bombing of the MOVE collective house, which killed 11 in Philadelphia, 1985.
Considering the contemporary crisis of police killings of black men and the mysteries still swirling around Huey P. Newton, twenty years after the debut of his one-man play, Roger Guenveur Smith remains an unique observer with important insights to share.
Indeed, after Facebook messaging him, I was surprised, one day later, to be talking to him on the phone, starting with the subject of Stanley Nelson’s new documentary “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution”.
Roger Guenveur Smith doing ‘Frederick Douglass Now’, a solo performance he originated at Occidental College, 1976. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
It’s a great film. The only thing missing is that deep investigation of Mr. Newton that you provide. [Nelson] has someone saying, ‘We created a cult of personality around a fucking maniac,’ or something like that, but he didn’t go into it that deeply. You went into it very deeply.
Roger Guenveur Smith:
I am honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Stanley Nelson, one of our country’s great documentarians. I haven’t seen his film but I am looking forward to it.
I have to preface this conversation by saying that it wasn’t simply a typographical error when I called it ‘A Huey P. Newton Story’. I think there are many Huey P. Newton stories.
The contradictions inherent in Huey P. Newton were acknowledged by Huey P. Newton. He was probably the first person to bring that to light.
A lot of [my] Huey story is told by Huey. I tried to rely, as much as I possibly could, on Huey in the first person. That was my guidepost for what I did in over 600 live improvised performances and then the film we were able to put together with my long time colleague Spike Lee.
I thought that was the most important way to tell a very difficult story.
The film adhered, I am guessing, very closely to your stage performance.
Yes, to a version of my performance. What I did with Spike was a good documentation of what we did on stage, although what we did was 87 minutes, because we did it for PBS, and there were performances that went for more than two hours. My usual performance was about an hour and forty minutes.
What you get in the film is a very streamlined version of what was improvised on stages all over the world. [By the way,] my sound designer, Marc Anthony Thompson, was right there with me doing a live mix, not only of archival music and sounds and original music but also of my voice.
Most of what you see in the film came from one performance in front of a live audience, in an old synagogue on the Lower Eastside in New York City, [although] we did have to do some set ups to get certain angles.
Poster for the film version of 'A Huey P. Newton Story'. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
For example, when we show Huey watching ‘Black Orpheus’, which was one of his favorite films, we had to put a green screen in front and put the camera behind me, and then, in post-production, put ‘Black Orpheus’ on the green screen.
about taking it from the stage to the screen for the PBS site, [which] will give you a pretty detailed journey of how the piece was developed.
I recall reading that you got the inspiration around when Huey was killed [in West Oakland in 1989] but it took a few years to put it together.
Yeah, people told me through the years that I bore a certain resemblance [to Newton] but that was always the easy part. When he died I realized how little I actually knew about him so I started the difficult business of really diving in.
I was very fortunate. I was introduced to his widow and his brother and comrades like David Hilliard, who obviously knew Huey very well and were very generous in sharing the spirit of Huey with me.
There was about a year of heavy archival work and gaining the trust of the family. I was able to see Huey’s record collection, book collection, listen to hours and hours of late-night cassette tape recordings in conversation with lots of people. Go over the correspondence, which at that time had not been archived. It was at all sitting in boxes in Fredericka’s [Newton’s widow] basement.
It didn’t have to work like that but miraculously it did. And I am really happy we were able to document what we achieved on stage because it is so rare that stage plays are preserved for posterity. They usually evaporate into the ether.
What were some of the books in Huey’s library?
He had a wide range of reading and an eclectic range in his record collection. I got to see his wardrobe—mundane things.
You were given complete and open access by the family?
I am sure there were some things that were not shared. I certainly had access to a great wealth of material—so great that I had problems trying to decide what was performable. Then I had to decide how to create a scripted film [since] the stage play was improvised.
Amazing. I noticed in the film there were remarks from the audience.
There is one part where someone says, ‘Love you Huey,’ then I say ‘Love you, too.’ And then someone says, ‘And we miss you.’
Cover for the 'A Huey P. Newton Story' audio-book version produced by LA Theater Works. photo: courtesy LA Theater Works
Here we are, so-called actor and so-called audience, committed to the spirit of Huey and of the movement he was so invested in. It was something obviously unscripted and couldn’t possibly be scripted.
I suppose you could have told someone in the audience ‘OK at this point say, ‘We love you Huey,’’ but I don’t think you could get two women in the audience—I don’t even know who they were—singing along with Archie Bell and the Drells’ ‘Tighten Up’.
Did you get pushback from anyone in the family or the Panthers about your interpretation [of Newton]?
Yeah, there were objections from all sides. There were reactionaries who felt I was lionizing Huey more than he deserved and there were other people who felt the Huey I was presenting was not as heroic as they would have preferred.
There was a conversation with Huey’s brother Melvin and comrade David Hilliard in between engagements in San Francisco, which I did [before] I went to Oakland. They were concerned that the Oakland community would not take to my interpretation of Huey, particularly the drug references.
To their great credit, they came to conclusion that they had to allow me to play the Huey I wanted to play. And I played any number of Hueys [chuckle] over the course of the seasons I played him.
There was one time I was supposed to have done a radio interview in San Francisco [with] a former Panther who came to see the show and promptly cancelled the interview. From what I understand, it was because of the drug references. So there you have it.
There were many more objections from all quarters—there were aesthetic objections.
Really?!? I thought it was beautiful.
Thank you and I think the majority agreed with you but there are some naysayers out there, just as there are for any project.
But you never—god forbid—received any death threats?
[Chuckles] Not to my knowledge. It didn’t get like that. I think people were smart enough to realize it wasn’t Huey reincarnated, it was Roger playing Huey.
Another interesting interview I did was with Coco Fusco [the Cuban/New Yorker journalist performance artist], while I was doing the stage play at the Public Theater in New York. It was pretty provocative in terms of where she was trying to lead me. And where I went and didn’t go. Check it out it in
Huey P. Newton after release from San Quentin State Prison in '70, ripped and ready for his star turn. photo: courtesy H. P. Newton estate
Was there any stuff you uncovered in your research that was too odd or complicated and you decided to leave out?
No. Complication and oddness was the stuff I was attracted to. When we are creating drama, we are looking for conflict, contradiction, and, if you are doing a solo performance, that has to be within the solo character. And that was certainly in Huey!
So you accept that Huey probably killed the young prostitute [Kathleen Smith, 1974]?
[Chuckles] You are asking me the wrong question. What did the court record say? It didn’t say that he killed her, does it?
I am trying to drill down. It is hard to find a definitive—
No. All you have to do is go to the court record and you will see what the result was. He was not convicted of killing a prostitute. I am certainly not going to go on record saying that I thought that he did. I am not a witness.
I quote him in the course of my piece—a direct quote saying he didn’t do it. He came back from Cuba to stand up for charges [in 1977] and that is how Huey is quoted dealing with that.
Now there are other journalists out there who have speculated as to what really happened—that is a matter of public record. I would never go on record even speculating about that case. That would not be in my interest or what I have achieved with ‘A Huey P. Newton Story’.
Did you find a turning a point in his life? In the beginning, he was so brilliant and daring, patrolling with the police and the takeover of the California Legislature—
did you notice a place where he veered off and became more irresponsible?
I can’t say. I wasn’t there. There are a lot of people who are still living who were there and have a more intimate perspective on the many transitions of Huey P. Newton. I think there were many.
There were many more to come and, tragically, he was taken away from us. He left the planet at the age of 47. He had a lot more to contribute.
When was that moment [when he changed]? I don’t know. He lived in Cuba for three years and never learned to speak Spanish—what kind of experience could that have been for him? I showed the film in Havana and there were people who were there who knew him and appreciated what we did.
To have been in solitary confinement and to come out into what he called the ‘Stucco Cell,’ the penthouse apartment [of a big high rise] on Lake Merritt. For his 30th birthday, he was given a telescope and spent hours looking at the actual cellblock [where he was held], which is right across the lake in the Alameda Courthouse. All the protests were held, right on those steps.
Roger Guenveur Smith in 'CornerStore', an indie shot in Detroit, 2003. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
From a personal point of view, he described himself as a shy individual. When he came out of prison, he went on a national speaking tour. He described that as the worst experience of his life.
Here he was, speaking to thousands and thousands of people who were looking on him as an icon. In many ways, that was a direct contradiction to what he was trying to build, which was a people’s movement.
But, then again, you can talk to some people who knew him on the streets of Oakland and would not describe him as humble or shy. That is why I called it ‘A Huey P. Newton Story’: a man of profound contradictions.
Certainly, in the footage of him, he doesn’t look shy and is quite charismatic.
He comes out of prison and takes shirt off—
And is astoundingly buff and good looking!
He obviously [used prison] to cultivate not only his mind but his body. But, at the same time he is cultivating his body and his mind, he is breaking them down. That is something I tried to suggest in that sequence when he is dancing to Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ [which was edited from the movie’s YouTube version for copyright reasons].
[Or when] he’s ripping off pushups but, at the same time, chain-smoking Kools.
The chainsmoking—with two cigarettes, even—is a fantastic trope, a metaphor for coke addiction and very cinematic, the smoke.
[Chuckles] Well, I didn’t have very many props, just that and [a few] little pieces of poetry.
Do you think there is something that could have saved Huey? He had his partner Eldridge Cleaver [third in command], who was as mercurial, but [Panther Chairman] Bobby Seale was more stable.
The answer to that is that Bobby is living and Huey and Eldridge are not. Now Eldridge was not gunned down in front of a crackhouse [in West Oakland].
I suggest in the film that Huey and Eldridge and Stokely Carmichael [southern black power leader] were still going to be here in the year 2000. Of course none of them were. Neither was Biggy Smalls [Brooklyn rap artist, killed in a drive-by in LA, 1997].
‘Was there anything that could have saved Huey?’ I don’t know. Was there anything that could saved Jean-Michelle Basquiat [painter, who overdosed at 27, in 1988]? I think we like to think that we could have or someone could have.
We would have liked to have thought there could be a cure for Bob Marley’s cancer but when he was kid he told his mother he only had 36 years on the planet—now I am veering off into Marleyisms.
Could we have possibly saved Huey? I don’t know.
Roger Guenveur Smith after putting on his new project, in his signature improv style, on Rodney King, who died recently (1965–2012) from Bricarts Brooklyn. photo: courtesy R. G. Smith
Huey was a brilliant strategist; the California Legislature takeover was an incredible success, using the icon of guns. If he could have moved, instead of towards more gun use, towards more media theater—
That is a simplistic analysis of a very complex situation—an extraordinarily complex situation.
Let’s remember: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was the original name of the party. There was a young man by the name Denzel Dowel who was killed by the police with his arms up in Richmond, California [in 1966, which triggered protests and a visit from the Panthers].
And there were very simple needs the community had, like a crosswalk where any number of people were killed by traffic. The Panthers started escorting people across the intersection and lobbied for a stop sign.
The things we continue to be embroiled in in 2015, the Panthers were smart and sensitive enough to identify in 1966.
You know, I am also in the [Melvin and Mario Van] Peebleses’ film ‘Panthers’ as an FBI agent. While I was preparing to play Huey, I am doing this other project. Of course that film was adapted from a novel, written by Melvin Van Peebles, so at the end of the film we do not have Huey, Bobby and Eldridge but a number of fictitious characters.
I thought that was a copout, having the end of the film focus on the FBI pushing drugs on the community, but the rest of the film was pretty good. What did you think?
Again, I must say that film was based on a novel, so it was never meant to be a documentary interpretation of the movement. For that reason, I would imagine, Melvin and Mario decided to focus on a composite characters.
It was an attempt to tell a Panther story and resonate with a younger audience. I haven’t seen it for a while but it was interesting going from that project into my project—my own little contradiction.
Did you see the documentary of Eldridge in North Africa? That is a nice piece. What else are you looking at?
Well I am surfing around, there is the ‘Black Power Mix Tape’. I was just talking to a former Panther in Sacramento and asked him if there was a film he would suggest to his son and he said flatly, ‘No.’
Newton switches from pageantry to surrealism at court in 1977, saying the charges against him were as real as his dog. photo: courtesy H. P. Newton estate
Everyone’s Panther experience was different. You talk to someone affiliated with the party in Chicago—‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’ [Mike Gray and Howard Alk , 1971] is a great doc—or someone in New York or overseas. Certainly, there are a million different perspectives on who Huey was and what he meant, at any particular time.
Would he take any responsibility for the increased gun violence that has emerged over the last few decades?
What do you mean? The police killing people? Would Huey take responsibility for it?
In a direct quote from my film: Huey said, ‘I don’t really like guns, I don’t like to hear them clicking around my head.’
He came to say, eventually, ‘We have alienated a lot of people in the community by brandishing guns and using bad language.’ Does that mean at heart Huey was a peacenik? No, not necessarily. He was, again, a man full of contradictions.
He trained as a classical pianist. He also trained as a boxer. He claims he taught himself to read by going through Plato’s ‘Republic’ multiple times.
He claimed he was a functional illiterate when he graduated from high school in Oakland. He was kicked out of virtually every public school in Berkeley and Oakland because he was a hard head: he liked to fight. But he also loved to read.
I can tell you he loved to be the philosopher. There were cassette tapes of him talking on any number of subjects for hours and hours.
That was really the conclusion his brother [Melvin] came to when he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘We got to let Roger do what he is going to do.’ [Melvin] said he sometimes would leave at 5 o’clock in the evening and Huey would still be talking at 7 o’clock the next morning!
What was the oddest one digression he got into?
I don’t know—look at the film again. He goes to a lot of different places. One of the craziest things, in one of his many trials, he walked into and out of the courthouse with a dog leash that was stiff but no dog. He would tell the press that the charges against him have about as much substance as his invisible dog.
OK that is absurdist, theatrical—it is comedic! [chuckles] It is an act which only Huey would be capable. You can find a picture of him with that leash—publish that.
Where do you think he got the brilliant insight to do the ‘open carry’ and patrolling with the cops?
He studied law and looked at the gun laws in California, at that time, which stated you could carry a firearm as long as it was registered, not loaded and not pointed in a threatening manner.
Because the Panthers were exploiting the open carry law, [the authorities] immediately wanted to change the law. That is why they went to the state capital with guns. It wasn’t just street theater, they were making a point, [whereupon] the legislature took it upon themselves to change the law—there you go.
That was quite spectacular, maybe Huey should have started making his own movies.
Being close friends with a top Hollywood producer, Bert Schneider, and brilliant at iconography and performance, Newton could have become a powerful consultant for a revolution in media. photo: courtesy the Panthers
Oddly enough when he was being spirited away to Cuba [by his Hollywood buddies on a catamaran from Mexico that almost sank], the people were writing a film script about the experience.
He was very close to Bert Schnieder, a film producer of ‘Hearts and Minds’ (1974], which won an Oscar. He did ‘The Monkees’ [1966-8, and ‘Easy Rider’ 1969]. A top Hollywood producer, he was also one of Huey’s closest friends and he was also a great financial supporter of Huey and the party. So here you have radical politics mixing up with Hollywood—the new ‘70s Hollywood.
Is there a book that you think lays it out pretty intelligibly?
I think you have to read Huey in his own words. That is the place to start and read his poetry published by City Lights. That is the discipline I had for my piece: never reference anything if it was a second person interpretation. It was always Huey on Huey that drove my narrative.
There are lots of people who have opinions or accounts of him [but] the most damning ideas in the piece are Huey. When he says ‘Maybe it would be better off if I had gone to the gas chamber—‘
Instead of ‘Dying a reactionary suicide—‘
There you go.
That is pretty chilling. I was just reading when Bobby Seale said he felt like killing him himself, that was pretty chilling as well.
Yup. I am sure it was vice versa as well, if we are to believe accounts that are flowing out there. I will leave it up to you to find those conflicts between Huey and Bobby.
One of the saddest parts of the story, I find, is when he called back all the chapter leaders from around the county [to Oakland]. I know they wanted to run Seale for mayor [of Oakland, 1972] but the chapters seemed to be doing very well on their own. That seemed to kill the movement.
Yeah, you can talk about that but you can also talk about this thing called CoIntelPro, OK? The outright infiltration of the party [by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program] is well documented.
Of course, any type character defect, hubris—as with all leaders of movements—that is going to be a factor. But it is Huey himself who quotes Bob Dylan: ‘Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters.’
Newton in the '70s, when he was getting his masters and then PhD from UC Santa Cruz. photo: courtesy H.P. Newton estate
Look at the film ‘Eldridge in Exile’, and the one of Fred Hampton. And the one California Newsreel has, including Huey’s birthday when he is prison—that is really good one. They had Huey’s rattan chair empty and that gave me the inspiration to use just his chair as the only furniture in the play.
That empty chair is now in the Oakland museum. It is the only monument to the Panthers pretty much in all of Oakland.
That is odd, odd. I am not going to get into the conflict over who is going to control the images and who is going to get paid. All of that it is very controversial.
I am just happy to be a part of a group of people who have taken the movement seriously enough to be inspired by it and hopefully interpret and document a vital part of it, period, end of quote.
OK, unless you want add anything about your future projects.
I am working on a piece about Rodney King, a first generation Californian who died tragically at the age of 47, who came to public recognition at a young age by being in conflict with the police department—in a certain way, connected to Huey P. Newton.
And I am working on a piece about the construction of the Panama Canal called ‘500 Lives Per Mile’ because that was the human cost of building it, primarily by black Jamaican, Trinidadian and Barbagian laborers. So there you go.
And I getting ready to do a film about Nat Turner, ‘Birth of Nation’, starring Nate Parker, who is also directing. We will be on location in Savannah, Georgia, in May and June.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on May 16, 2015 - 08:42 PM