Roger Guenveur Smith knows that the Huey P. Newton most of us remember is a one-dimensional figure -- the angry revolutionary with a rifle in hand and a bandoleer across his chest.
But to Smith, whose one-man show, "A Huey P. Newton Story," opens tomorrow at Center Stage, the late co-founder of the Black Panther Party is "a tragic hero of Shakespearean dimensions. In a sense, he's my Hamlet."
Smith believes that Newton, like Hamlet, is a man of many contradictions: "In 1966 he founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense with Bobby Seale, and he did that on the streets of Oakland, Calif. In 1989, he was murdered on those same streets, not necessarily fighting the revolution, but trying to get some crack cocaine.
"He's a man who claims to have been a functional illiterate when he graduated from high school -- taught himself how to read by going through Plato's 'Republic' six times, earned a Ph.D. at U.C., Santa Cruz. A man whose strength came from the street and whose weakness perhaps was in the street as well."
A glance at Smith's bio suggests that Newton is an unlikely choice for this serious-minded, but affable actor with GQ good looks. After all, in Mario Van Peebles' 1995 movie, "Panther," Smith played an FBI agent sent to California to destroy the Black Panther Party.
He was creating "A Huey P. Newton Story" at the time. How did he reconcile these extremes? "Sometimes you play Othello. Sometimes you play Iago," says Smith, who also stars in Spike Lee's new movie about the Million Man March, "Get on the Bus."
It was, in a sense, the ubiquitous image of Newton as the armed revolutionary in the black leather jacket that was the genesis of this show, which moves to Washington after its three-day engagement in Center Stage's Off Center series, then to New York's Public Theater in February.
In fall 1989, shortly after Newton's death, Smith was working on his one-man show, "Frederick Douglass Now," which offered a 20th century take on the famous 19th century former Maryland slave and abolitionist. The show incorporated modern technology and a rap epilogue, and Smith portrayed Douglass in a black leather jacket, which he describes as his "unconscious homage to Huey."
To the archives
The Douglass piece was a forerunner of "A Huey P. Newton Story" in a more direct way, as well. Several members of Newton's family saw "Frederick Douglass Now" and, Smith says, "They were impressed with my ability to flesh out archival materials."
After what Smith calls "a slow process of trust-building," the family granted him access to Newton's archives, which included obscure radio and television interviews -- the latter an especially valuable resource since Smith never saw Newton in person. Nor, perhaps, did it hurt that Smith bears a resemblance to the revolutionary leader -- "enough that I startled a couple of [his] family members," he admits.
Audio and videotapes, however, revealed yet another reason Newton is a difficult subject for a solo show. The Panthers' self-proclaimed minister of defense was unaccustomed to public speaking and acknowledged that he wasn't good at it. Not only was he out of the public eye much of his adult life -- either in jail or in exile in Cuba -- but when he did give speeches, his voice was nervous and high-pitched.
Undismayed, Smith treated Newton's public-speaking shortcomings as "one of the great dramatic challenges of the piece." This isn't the first time the actor has given voice to a character whose speech could present a problem.
In 1989 he created the role of Smiley, the retarded character in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." In his published journal on the movie, Lee writes: "Roger came up with the idea that Smiley should stutter, listen to Malcolm's speeches on a Walkman, and give out cards with that famous photograph of Malcolm X and Martin."
Smith, who in Lee's words, "talked his way into" the movie, has become one of the filmmaker's regulars, with five Lee movies to his credit, though his scenes were cut in "Jungle Fever."
"Spike and I have a great rapport," says Smith, explaining that he also had considerable input into Gary, his character in "Get on the Bus." The movie chronicles the experiences of a group of men who take a bus from Los Angeles to the Million Man March.
Insistent about not giving away too much about his character -- who becomes increasingly controversial as the movie progresses -- Smith chooses to identify Gary only as the son of a white mother and a black policeman, who was killed by another black man.
As he did with Smiley, Smith wrote or improvised some of Gary's dialogue, including his last speech. He also contributed the idea that Gary play the guitar, which serves as a unifying factor for the other men on the bus.