Date: Sun, 24 Jun 2001 15:02:24 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: [generalnews] One-man wonder: Black Panther lives again in a fiery
One-man wonder: Black Panther lives again in a fiery portrayal
By CHRIS VOGNAR / The Dallas Morning News
The words come impossibly fast and lucid, pouring out in a nasal,
Louisiana-tinged rant. He chain-smokes as if his life depended on it, knee
bouncing up and down, head bobbing back and forth in the billowing clouds.
Angry, playful, broken, brave, Roger Guenveur Smith's Huey P. Newton is a
marvel of stagecraft and poetic interpretation that wowed theater audiences
as a one-man touring production.
Now, Mr. Smith's fever-pitch portrayal of the Black Panthers co-founder has
reached the screen, albeit the small one. Directed by frequent collaborator
Spike Lee, A Huey P. Newton Story marks a feather in the cap of the
relatively young Black Starz! channel, formerly BET Movies. (It also will
air later this year on PBS.)
It's a dynamic, multi-layered portrayal of the complex and troubled Mr.
Newton, who was brutally slain outside an Oakland crack house in 1989 at
the age of 47.
Philosopher, intellectual, criminal, leader: Mr. Newton was a walking
contradiction a menace, a hero or both, depending on your point of view.
He was adamant about the black man's right to bear arms in a society that
preferred the civil rights movement or outright racism to militant
activism. His programs helped feed poor children, but he pleaded no contest
to embezzling $15,000 in state funding for a Panther-run school. He
preached self-sufficiency, only to be undone by his weakness for crack
cocaine. He earned a doctorate from the University of California even as he
remained under FBI scrutiny.
"I was curious when he was murdered, and I was rather embarrassed about my
ignorance," says Mr. Smith by phone. "I had heard the news blurbs Huey
arrested in barroom brawl, Huey earns Ph.D., Huey murdered in front of
crack house. How do you connect those dots and try to flesh out the man
behind the myth and create a human being who transcends headlines?"
If you're Mr. Smith, you study Mr. Newton until you can become him. You
sort through transcripts, audio and videotape. A master of the one-man
performance his Frederick Douglass Now was also lauded onstage Mr.
Smith's solo abilities are on par with those of another theatrical Smith,
He consumes his subjects and makes them his own, interacting with and
baiting his audience while in character, improvising on a dime. The fact
that Mr. Smith looks remarkably like Mr. Newton only intensifies the show's
The task of capturing Mr. Newton's speech patterns presented a particular
challenge though Mr. Newton could slow down from time to time, he was
known to let the ideas fly.
In his book This Side of Glory, Mr. Newton's fellow Panther and life-long
friend David Hilliard remembers conversing with a crack-addled Huey: "On
and on he'd ramble, from 6 in the evening to 6 the next morning, nonstop,
all the time expecting me to sit there like a sounding board, never letting
me get a word in edgewise."
"It's almost like training for an athletic event," says Mr. Smith of
capturing Mr. Newton's verbal flow. "It's a challenge, especially when
you're smoking cigarettes as well."
This time, he could at least count on some creative cinematic touches from
Mr. Lee. Filmed with multiple cameras before a live audience, A Huey P.
Newton Story uses blue-screen technology to incorporate documentary footage
behind and in front of Mr. Smith rallies, marches and sound bites appear
as if conjured by the man onstage. The multimedia touches help accentuate
the show's myriad themes and harness the breakneck pace.
But Mr. Smith never lets us forget that this is his show. A Huey P. Newton
Story is a dangerously raw piece of work, fearless theater without a net.
By the time Mr. Smith/Newton does his final riff on Macbeth and Black
Orpheus, you feel as if you've witnessed a multiple out-of-body experience.
A Huey P. Newton Story
A Lee favorite
You might not know the name, but you probably know the face. Roger Guenveur
Smith has appeared in six Spike Lee films, joining such performers as
Giancarlo Esposito, John Turturro and Thomas Jefferson Byrd as featured
players in the director's informal troupe. Among Mr. Smith's highlights:
Do the Right Thing (1989): In Mr. Lee's most seminal work, Mr. Smith played
Smiley, a stuttering peddler of photos featuring Martin Luther King and
Malcolm X (he also lights the match that burns Sal's Pizzeria to the
ground). Mr. Smith created the role from scratch after Mr. Lee gave him the
script and asked him to create a character.
Get on the Bus (1996): Mr. Smith stood out in an ensemble that included
Andre Braugher, Ossie Davis and Charles S. Dutton. He brought a sense of
pathos and easy-going discipline to the role of a Los Angeles police
officer joining an array of black men en route to the Million Man March.
He Got Game (1998): Mr. Smith played a sage agent/hustler who offers advice
(and advancement) to high school hoops god Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by
Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen).
Mr. Smith also appeared in Mr. Lee's School Daze, Malcolm X and Summer of
Sam. And he has been in several films not directed by Mr. Lee, including
Final Destination and Deep Cover.
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