A simple fact — the Watts Towers were the creation of Italian architect Simon Rodia, built over the course of three decades and finished 10 years before the Watts riots — belongs somewhere in Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man childhood reminiscence “The Watts Tower Project” to cement a piece of regional history. Without that nugget, Smith’s monologue has a freestyle bounce, like a series of vivid dreams over the course of a restless night; he riffs with language like a free jazz musician, then spins a nicely detailed anecdote and proffers insight gleaned from being an attentive insider. But ultimately he tries to go too far afield and loses the grounding the Watts neighborhood gave his life.
The rambling work loses its fundamental focus: that some children were too young to fully grasp the civil rights movement at its inspirational root, when marches and chants and standing your ground were key. Smith’s life, and those of others like him in Detroit and Newark, was shaped by the race riots and the mayhem, the look of disappointment in their parents’ eyes when news arrived that Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.
He delivers the overlong piece (losing 15 minutes would add significant clarity) with too many styles — the preacher, the jazzman, the barbershop storyteller, the immigrant artist, etc. A light-skinned black man often mistaken for an Italian, Smith opens the piece with an uncomfortable, unblinking stare before giving way to a more natural glaze as he takes on voices of the mentally challenged, Rodia, old men and some tourists.
The opening 15 minutes overwhelm with sound — Charles Wright’s singing the line “Express Yourself” ping-pongs around the sound system over Enrico Caruso’s recording of “O Sole Mio” — and an inexplicable slo-mo running scene. When Smith starts to talk, he tosses out images that never fully congeal. They resolve, however, in the most vivid account of the evening.
It’s the 1960s and he’s a kid in an adult world — helping his parents run their hotel, listening to percussionist Mongo Santamaria live and the Rolling Stones on the radio with no racial line dividing the two, unlike the world he sees at the corner of 39th and Western Avenue. To his child’s eye, peace is broken by Juan Marichal, the legendary San Francisco Giants pitcher, who cracks open the head of beloved Dodger catcher John Roseboro with a swift intentional swing of the bat. Smith breaks down the incident, delineating lines of race and nationality for each player with little concern for Dodger blue or Giants black; he burns Marichal’s baseball card out of hatred and chants words that have rung out around him regularly — “burn, baby, burn” — that transport him beyond innocence’s border.
Smith takes the story full circle, explaining how one of baseball’s most evil on-field moments eventually became a story of forgiveness and acceptance — a unique situation that took decades to play out. If only the rest of “Watts Towers” were so well conceived and explained.
It’s a wide left turn from Chavez Ravine and ventures to Basquiat’s grave in Brooklyn, Malathion spraying, a fatal crash on the 110 southbound and eventually a conspiracy theorist’s list of questions about who killed Nigerian musical legend Fela, Bob Marley and rapper Eazy-E.
Disjointed — in tone, use of language and subject matter — Smith dips into Rodia’s drive and conviction but never fully explores who the man was nor what the Watts Towers came to represent.
He drops in plenty of tidbits of L.A. lore and geography that generate knowing nods and purred “uh-huhs” from the audience. Smith, who speaks in front of two big screens filled with changing detailed photos of the towers, has yet to edit out self-indulgences and references that trap rather than define “Watts Towers.”
Piece is similar to a lengthy jazz solo from the 1960s, one fueled with anger and occasional lyricism that generates whoops and hollers early on but only a few hardy claps at the end. It communicates with like-minded individuals and those who share the creator’s background, but it never moves beyond its local confines with conviction or purpose.
The acoustic guitar music of Mark Anthony Thompson, who records as Chocolate Genius and is touring as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s band, assisted in serene moments, but “O Sole Mio” drove home the piece’s point more forcefully.