'Newton,' with gravity, at Center Stage Theater review

November 02, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

At one point in his one-man show, "A Huey P. Newton Story," actor and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith portrays the late co-founder of the Black Panther Party proclaiming from jail: "This is just the little prison. The big prison is on the outside."

And indeed, in this eerily fascinating time-warp of a show at Center Stage, Newton appears to be imprisoned even though, for the bulk of the evening, he is legally a free man.

Smith spends most of the nearly two-hour, intermission-less show seated in a chair, with an ashtray to his left and a microphone to his right. His legs vibrate incessantly and his head and body make involuntary jerking motions, as if he can't stand being in that chair, but can't get out of it, either.

It's a fitting physical metaphor for a man whose own demons ultimately limited his freedom as effectively as the legal system did.

Smith shows us the wreckage of a man whose dreams -- some of which were highly laudable, including the Panthers' programs providing free sickle-cell anemia testing and free breakfasts for children -- became overshadowed by notoriety, drug addiction and a leadership image he couldn't, and didn't want to, maintain.

With a nervous, twangy voice and a jittery smile, Smith paints a thoroughly credible picture of this man, ill at ease not only in front of crowds, but even home alone in the penthouse apartment where he was living when he was shot to death by a drug dealer on the streets of Oakland, Calif., in 1989.

Because he appears so hopelessly and uncomfortably stuck in his chair for most of the evening, when Smith's Newton does extricate himself, it's a strong dramatic moment. And it becomes all the more powerful when his frenetic attempts to exercise his ++ freedom -- snorting cocaine, shadow boxing, doing push-ups -- render him more tense than before.

Newton -- who served his longest jail term for the 1967 murder of a policeman, a conviction that was later overturned -- spoke of vaulting the "crystal wall." At home, the glass wall is still there. He can run up against it, even break the back of that all-confining chair (as happened accidentally on opening night), but he remains hemmed in.

Smith compiled "A Huey P. Newton Story" from such primary sources as Newton's autobiography, poetry, interviews and other archival material, including audio and videotapes. Ninety percent of the text is Newton's own words, but Smith has so much material, he keeps the structure fairly fluid, engaging in some give-and-take with the audience and, apparently, inserting deleting passages according to the tenor of the crowd. On opening night, for example, he incorporated Countee Cullen's poem about racism in Baltimore, "Incident."

Shared credit for the show's fluidity goes to Smith's collaborator, composer Marc Anthony Thompson, who provides live sound effects and also participates in some of the give-and-take.

Smith -- who is one of Spike Lee's regulars and can currently be seen starring in "Get on the Bus" -- has been performing and honing "A Huey P. Newton Story" for more than two years. The result is as much of a phenomenon as it is a play -- an impressionistic portrait that neither praises nor condemns Newton. From Center Stage, where it is part of the Off Center series, the show moves to Washington, then to New York's Public Theater.

At this point, a little tightening would heighten the dramatic impact. And Smith's last line, intended as one of Newton's darkly comic jokes, doesn't convey nearly as much of a chill of recognition as the "Macbeth" quote that precedes it and serves VTC as a leitmotif throughout the piece. Even so, "A Huey P. Newton Story" brings back the turbulent 1960s with disturbing verisimilitude.

'Huey P. Newton'

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: At 7 and 9: 30 tonight

Tickets: $20

$ Call: (410) 481-6500

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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