Roger Guenveur Smith
Smith, Roger Guenveur 1960—
Roger Guenveur Smith 1960—
Actor, writer, director
Roger Guenveur Smith is not a famous actor, nor would his face be readily recognized on the street. He is, however, an extremely well-respected actor who makes a point of accepting provocative roles in theater, television, and film. More importantly, when those roles are not immediately forthcoming, Smith creates his own. Without fail, the work he does aims at bringing the black experience into mainstream American entertainment. As a writer, director, and actor, he is making an admirable place for himself in the theatrical world.
Born in Berkeley, CA, but raised in Los Angeles, Smith did not have the acting bug at first; his interests were varied and ever changing. Smith was the first of his family to be born outside of the South. His mother, from South Carolina, and his father, from Virginia, moved to California in order to find opportunities denied to them as blacks in the segregated south. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of Smith’s work as an adult addresses the African American’s position in society.
As Smith sought his own place, he was drawn to acting, but was afraid he might not be able to make a living at it. He attended Occidental College, a small private college in Los Angeles, from which he received a Bachelors degree in American Studies. Now beginning to toy seriously with the idea of acting as a career, Smith applied for and won a fellowship to do theater abroad for a year. The Thomas J. Watson fellowship allowed him to apprentice at the Keskidee Arts Centre, a small theater in London that was an African-Caribbean theater center. On returning home Smith went to Yale University, initially into their African American studies program. Acting finally got the best of him, however, and he transferred into and graduated from Yale’s prestigious School of Drama.
Law school had tempted Smith, as had the idea of teaching history at the college level. His strong desire to instruct led to a year spent teaching English at Hollywood High in Los Angeles following graduate school. Although he eventually gave it up to enter the performing sphere full-time, Smith still teaches performance workshops from time to time, including stints at the University of California at Berkeley. As he told Marianne Ruuth in Players, “I’ve had the opportunity to be influential within Academia and yet maintain my independence as an artist. That’s a good combination.”
Smith began his professional acting career in the mid 1980s. He developed his craft on the stage of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and at the New York Shakespeare festival playing Pinter, Ionesco, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Smith went on to play seasons at the Mark Taper Forum, Mabou Mines, and the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville. As Don Snowden wrote in the New York Times Syndicate, Smith “also honed his skills in
At a Glance…
Born 1960, in Berkeley, CA; son of Sherman (a judge) and Helen (a dentist) Smith. Wife: Carolina; children: Luna Rae. Education: Bachelor’s degree in American studies from Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA, c. 1982; Master’s degree from Yale School of Drama; apprenticed at the Keskidee Arts Centre, London, England, on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
Actor, writer, and director. Acted in films including School Daze, 1988, Do the Right Thing, 1989, King of New York, 1990, Deep Cover, 1992, Malcolm X, 1992, Poetic Justice, 1993, Talés from the Hood, 1995, Panther, and The Bus, 1996; wrote and starred in stage performances including Frederick Douglass Now, 1990, Inside the Creole Mafia, 1991, Christopher Columbus 1992, 1992, A Huey P. Newton Story, 1995; appeared on the stage in The Birthday Party, Agamemnon, The Task, Sueños, It’s a Man’s World, That Serious He-Man Bull, and Coriolanus; appeared on television in A Different World, Cosmic Slop, Murphy Brown, and Fallen Angels.
Awards: The LA Weekly’s award for Best Two Person Show for Inside the Creole Mafia; two NAACP awards for Best Playwright and Best Actor for A Huey P. Newton Story, 1995; and the LA Weekly’s award for Best Solo Performance for A Huey P. Neioion Story, 1996.
Addresses: Management— Kaplan-Adams Entertainment, 8205 Santa Monica Blvd., #1-177, Los Angeles, CA, 90046.
the minimal, make-do-with-what’s-at-hand tradition that Smith only half-jokingly refers to as ’the theater of nothing and everything.’”
During the late 1980s Smith began to work in films. In 1989 he appeared in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing Although Smith’s role as Smiley in this extremely controversial film about racial tension was a small one, it was memorable. Smith was allowed to create the role himself. What he developed was the stuttering neighborhood idiot who wandered the streets hawking photos of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shaking hands. Most every review of the film made mention of Smith’s part. Elle went so far as to note that “Smith pulled off the role of the stuttering militant... with such chilling finesse that it has obscured the fact that he’s passionately articulate.”
Smith went on to appear in small roles in many films, especially those directed by a group of rising young African American filmmakers whose films bring realistic and powerful images of black life to the screen. A favorite of Spike Lee, Smith appeared in his School Daze, Malcolm X, and worked with him on Jungle Fever, although his scenes for that film were cut in the final version. In 1996 Smith played one of the leads in Lee’s The Bus. Smith has also been in King of New York, Deep Cover, Poetic Justice, Tales from the Hood, and Panther, a film about the 60s militant group the Black Panthers.
Smith has also tried his hand at television. Many would remember him in the acclaimed Bill Cosby spinoff, A Different World, in which Smith had a recurring role as history Professor Randolph. He appeared in Show-time’s cable TV adaption of black detective writer Walter Mosley’s Fearless as well as in Showtime’s series Fallen Angels. Smith has been seen in highly-rated series as the Hudlin Brother’s Cosmic Slop on HBO and network television’s long-running Mu rphy Brown.
Roger Smith’s first love, however, remains the theater. As he told Snowden, “Theater is my foundation and it’s something to which I continually return. It’s a source of creativity that’s really unparalleled because it’s live and direct.” Smith is not one to sit around waiting for his agent’s call; he creates his own work. Since 1990 Smith has been developing and performing critically acclaimed solo theater pieces around African American historical figures and/or themes.
His first piece, Frederick Douglass Now, premiered at the La Mama Theater in New York City in 1990. In it Smith tells the story of this self-educated ex-slave who became an abolitionist leader. In an hour-long performance, Smith combined Douglass’s texts with rap, jazz, and reggae, and as Elle described “all the historical immediacy that dictaphones, video cameras, and cordless telephones can muster.” The reviewer went on to say, “Inscribing the recent racial strife in Bensonhurst and the rape of the Central Park jogger in his piece, Smith makes Douglass’s critique of American life seem tragically relevant. The show is both pedagogical and inspirational in its call to resistance.” When Elle asked him if he feared this stirring of controversy would hurt his chances in an already intolerant industry, Smith replied, “I’m already under siege in South Africa, in Central America, and in Bensonhurst. Frederick Douglass Now is my remedy.” Players Magazine called the piece “eloquent, passionate.”
Smith then created his Christopher Columbus 1992. When Ruuth wondered “why Columbus?” in Players, Smith replied amused, “It was the 500th anniversary of his alleged discovery of America and I had a statement to make—I didn’t make him into a hero but into a kind of lounge entertainer who runs a travel agency on the side...a guy still among us, he’s been on the charts for 500 years and has some political aspirations!” In Venice Magazine Victoria L. Tilney remarked that Smith had “dazzled audiences” with both Frederick Douglass and Christopher Columbus.
Smith first performed his next piece, Inside the Creole Mafia, in late 1991, and like his other works, often revives it, performing it again and again across the nation. Together with Mark Broyard, a vocalist, composer, choir director, and assemblage artist—with whom Smith has been friends since childhood—Smith created Inside the Creole Mafia. He described it as a “not too dark” comedy. It is an assortment of New Orleans memories, skits, performance art, a capella singing, and creole language instruction, and audience spoofing.
Most of the humor in Mafia has to do with the color of Creole skin. “As they explain,” according to LA Magazine, “the plight of Creole actors is that they’re not dark enough for black roles but too dark for white roles.” LA Magazine gave it an “A,” calling Smith a “gifted actor,” the show “engaging” and remarked that “Two better, more talented representatives would be hard to imagine... .Their show is more fun than Mardi Gras.” In the Los Angeles Times Jan Breslauer wrote that Mafia “isn’t just a cut above most performance works about racialidentity. It’s a cut above most performance works, period.” Breslauer called them “consummately skilled performers,” and “witty and versatile” writers, calling the whole thing an “exceptional work.”
In 1994 Smith began preparation on a piece that would be a landmark in his career, A Huey P. Newton Story. Huey Newton was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. As an in touch urban African American youth, Smith could not help having heard of Newton, but he became more and more aware of the man as Smith grew older. He remembered Newton’s release from prison in 1970 and, in particular, a 1972 incident involving the black leather jackets that, because of the Panthers influence, had become de rigueur among black youth in LA. A friend of a friend of Smith’s had his jacket ripped off of him by gang members in Hollywood. When Smith’s friend came to his assistance, he was stomped to death by the gang. Callous adults made remarks like “that’ll teach you to wear a black leather jacket.” The incident had a profound effect on Smith.
He did not, however, necessarily feel allied to the Panthers—telling Players that his “allegiances as an adolescent switched rapidly from year to year, from season to season. “But as Smith became more and more drawn to exploring the lives of influential African Americans, he became intrigued by Newton. He wanted to present the Huey Newton that most people knew nothing about. After a year of trust-building with Newton’s family, they allowed Smith an unprecedented look at his papers and records. Smith began to understand what it must have felt like to be in Newton’s family, to sit in his place. Newton’s relatives were at times actually made uncomfortable by Smith’s resemblance to Newton.
The piece developed—and continues to develop—in an improvisational manner. Smith told Snowden, “I had been absorbing all this material for the past year—listening to tapes of Huey, watching video tapes of Huey—and I came to the point when I put all the paperwork to the side and just started doing Huey.” The piece eventually involved Smith simply sitting in front of a mike, chain smoking, and speaking words taken directly from Newton’s writings. The San Francisco Focus called the Newton Story an “impressionistic yet razor-sharp portrait of a complex figure.” Smith wanted to delve into that complexity, to show more than just what people saw on the famous posters of Newton.
It wasn’t easy melding Newton’s words into a performance piece. Frederick Douglass had been a great orator, but Newton was not considered a dynamic speaker, a fact that disappointed many of his followers after they’d built a certain image of him. The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Smith’s meticulously researched solo performance illuminates these diverse facets with laser-like precision, the only common thread being Newton’s defiance of the expectations fostered by his own myth.” Marianne Ruuth asked Smith if he set out to be controversial. Smith laughed, “Of course not. If I set out to be controversial, I’d just take this bottle and throw it through the window. There are simpler ways of being controversial than going through the agony of putting on a play.”
It is difficult mounting the sorts of productions that Smith takes on. Although his vehicles for alternative theater strategies fit comfortably in the college circuit or store front gallery spaces, Smith also presents his work at African American Institutions like the Lorraine Hanbury Theater in Oakland, CA, as well as mainstream theaters like the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and New York’s Public Theater. It’s hard work, but work for which Smith receives the kudos he is due. What he does makes more than just a theatrical statement, he makes important social commentary. Smith admitted to Snowden, “Certainly, I’d like my work to be seen by the widest audience possible. The audience base for so-called legitimate theater in this country is dying. The legitimate theater has not found a way to create a new audience so that the same people packing the Apollo to see [rapper] Ice Cube will come to see Frederick Douglass Now or Inside the Creole Mafia.”
To spread a message, Roger Smith has to have listeners. In order to develop new audiences, he makes a point of connecting with the people who do come to see him. That’s why you’ll see Smith standing in front of the theater after every show, sincerely thanking people for coming, encouraging them to come back to the theater—for any show—again and again.
Booklist, January 1,1996.
Elle, February 1990.
Essence, June 1991.
Los Angeles Magazine, December 1993.
Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1991; October 2, 1993; January 19, 1995; January 27, 1995.
Nation, July 17, 1989.
New Yorker, June 8, 1987; July 24, 1989.
New York Times, February 19,1990.
New York Times Syndicate, July 4, 1995.
People Weekly, July 3, 1989.
Players, August 1995.
San Francisco Focus, November 1995.
Variety, November 6, 1995.
Venice (CA), January 1995.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from press materials for Poetic Justice, 1993; Tales From the Hood, 1995; and from Kaplan-Adams Entertainment, 1995 and 1996.
Smith, Roger Guenveur 1959(?)–
SMITH, Roger Guenveur 1959(?)–
(Roger Smith, Roger G. Smith)
Born July 27, 1959 (some sources say 1960), in Berkeley, CA; son of Sherman (a judge) and Helen (a dentist) Smith; married Carolina; children: Luna Rae. Education: Occidental College, B.A., American Studies, c. 1982; Yale School of Drama, M.A.; apprenticed at the Keskide Arts Centre, London, England.
Agent—Don Buchwald & Associates, 6500 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 2200, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
Manager—Steven Adams Entertainment, 2018 N. Vine St., Los Angeles, CA 90068. Publicist—Perception PR, 13333 Ventura Blvd., Suite 203, Sherman Oaks, CA 91423.
Actor, writer, and director. Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art Performance, artist–in–residence, 2001.
NAACP Awards, best playwright and best actor, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1995, L.A. Weekly Award, best solo performance, 1996, and Obie Award, Special Citation, 1997, for A Huey P. Newton Story; Image Award nomination, outstanding actor in a television movie, miniseries, or dramatic special, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2002, for A Huey P. Newton Story; L.A. Weekly Award, best two–person show, for Inside the Creole Mafia; Barrymore Award, for A Huey P. Newton Story.
(As Roger Smith) Yoda, School Daze, Columbia, 1988.
Smiley, Do the Right Thing, MCA/Universal, 1989.
Tanner, King of New York, Seven Arts Entertainment, 1990.
Eddie, Deep Cover, New Line Cinema, 1992.
Rudy, Malcolm X (also known as X), Warner Bros., 1992.
Heywood, Poetic Justice, Columbia, 1993.
Pruitt, Panther, Gramercy, 1995.
Rhodie, Tales from the Hood, Savoy Pictures, 1995.
Gary, Get on the Bus, Columbia, 1996.
Lenny Meraux, Eve's Bayou, Trimark Pictures, 1997.
Big Time Willie, He Got Game, Buena Vista, 1998.
Detective Curt Atwater, Summer of Sam, Buena Vista, 1999.
Agent Schreck, Final Destination, New Line Cinema, 2000.
Henson, Facade (also known as Death Valley), 2000.
Julian Ramose, All about the Benjamins (also known as All about the Money), New Line Cinema, 2002.
Charles Blocker, MVP, 2003.
(As Roger G. Smith) Marlo, Shade, Dimension Films, 2003.
Craig, Lesser of Three Evils, 2003.
Carter, Justice, 2004.
Solomon, God's Waiting List, 2005.
Television Appearances; Series:
Professor Howard Randolph, A Different World, NBC, 1990.
Miles Christopher, All My Children, ABC, 1997–98.
Francisco Dupre, K Street, HBO, 2003.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
Laertes, Hamlet, Odyssey, 2000.
Television Appearances; Movies:
(As Roger Smith) Professor Ford, The O. J. Simpson Story, Fox, 1995.
(As Roger G. Smith) Mac McGhee, The Color of Courage, USA Network, 1999.
Quinn Mathis, Incognito, Black Entertainment Television, 1999.
Napoliano, The Warden, TNT, 2001.
Title role, A Huey P. Newton Story, Black Starz!, 2001.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Workfare video person, Override, Showtime, 1994.
"Space Traders," Cosmic Slop, HBO, 1994.
The 12th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards, syndicated, 1997.
Love Letter to New York (documentary), PBS, 2000.
Reader, Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (documentary), HBO, 2003.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
Man in gallery, "Eldin Imitates Life," Murphy Brown, CBS, 1991.
Forbes, "The Last Hurrah," New York Undercover, Fox, 1997.
Prisoner #97M688 Huseni Mershah, "To Your Health," Oz, HBO, 1997.
Prisoner #97M688 Huseni Mershaw, "Plan B," Oz, HBO, 1997.
Terry Pennington, "A Farewell to Arm," City of Angels, CBS, 2000.
"The Next Life," The Guardian, CBS, 2002.
Sky, That Serious He–Man Bull, American Place, New York City, 1987.
First citizen, senator, soldier, and Tullus Aufidius, Volscian general, Coriolanus, Joseph Papp Public Theater/Anspacher Theatre, New York City, 1988.
Frederick Douglass Now, La Mama Theatre, New York City, 1990.
Inside the Creole Mafia, 1991.
Christopher Columbus, New York City, 1992.
A Huey P. Newton Story, 1993, then Los Angeles, 1996, later Joseph Papp Public Theater/LuEsther Hall, New York City, 1997.
Iceland: A Work in Progress, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, MN, 2001.
Iceland, Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia, PA, 2002, then PS 122, New York City, 2004.
Two Fires, Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Philadelphia, PA, 2003.
Also appeared in The Birthday Party; Agamemnon; The Task; Suecnos; It's a Man's World.
A Huey P. Newton Story, U.S. cities, 1997—.
Iceland, U.S. cities, 2002—.
Director, A Huey P. Newton Story, Joseph Papp Public Theater/LuEsther Hall, New York City, 1997.
A Huey P. Newton Story, Black Starz!, 2001.
Frederick Douglass Now, produced at La Mama Theatre, New York City, 1990.
Inside the Creole Mafia, produced 1991.
Christopher Columbus, produced in New York City, 1992.
A Huey P. Newton Story, produced 1993, then Los Angeles, 1996, later Joseph Papp Public Theater/LuEsther Hall, New York City, 1997, and other U.S. cities.
Iceland: A Work in Progress, produced at Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, MN, 2001.
Iceland, produced at Arden Theatre Company, Philadelphia, PA, 2002, then PS 122, New York City, 2004.
Two Fires, produced at Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Philadelphia, PA, 2003.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 12, Gale Research, 1996.
American Theatre, January, 2003, p. 52.
Essence, June, 1991, p. 36.
Jet, May 28, 2001, p. 64.