Roger Guenveur Smith delivers a provocative bio sketch in “A Huey P. Newton Story.” Given current interest in the late leader and his Black Panther Party legacy, Smith could have a long-term touring vehicle on tap if he chooses — though his impressionistic script and engrossing if somewhat one-dimensional performance likely won’t be the last theatrical statement on this enigmatic figure.
This Magic premiere has altered considerably since its work-in-progress appearance a couple doors down at last year’s Solo Mio Festival. Not every change is for the better. Smith has expanded the show by some 20 minutes, creating a less fragmentary package of biographical and philosophical ruminations.
But in some ways, the rawer “Story” seen before was more complexly fascinating: Smith then offered a Newton whose frequent silences and low-volume utterings implied personal disquietude over his clashing public personae. Such intimacy gave a sense that we were eavesdropping on a mind’s freeform reflection; bursts of oratory fervor and drug-addled ranting seemed all the more startling as contrast.
Smith retains that restlessness, but now heightens it via nonstop vocal and physical tics. Whatever time period or subject he’s addressing, his Huey is a jittery, wrecked man at tether’s end. (Newton died in 1989, shot to death in a street confrontation evidently related to crack addiction.) While undeniably compelling to watch, this slant tends to underline the negative aspects of Newton’s legacy at the expense of his achievements. More shading would be welcome, befitting a figure then (and now) vilified as a gangster by some whites while cast in the visionary martyr role by many African-Americans.
Smith remains seated in a chair on a platform throughout, rising just once to pantomime a frantic shadow-boxing dance that evolves into substance-withdrawal spasms. His chain-smoking memory-rap drifts from bittersweet Oakland childhood memories to prison incarceration. But aside from reciting the Black Panthers’ famous early 10-point program list of demands (benefiting all black citizens) from the government, Newton here evades direct commentary on his tumultuous Panther years. Internal party struggles, violent incidents (many tied to FBI harassment), ac-tivist milestones, et al., are at most alluded to.
Instead, Huey primarily muses on abstracts: the “Good Negro” and other racist stereotypes, Eastern religious teachings, his queasy relationship to fame (“A leader’s not a real person, he’s just a symbol, an idol … then he becomes an object of contempt”). He alludes to myriad cultural reference points, from Shakespeare to the film “Black Orpheus.” As he falls apart in front of us, the burden of past expectations grows insupportable.
Smith (who appeared in Mario Van Peebles’ recent “Panther” pic, though not as Newton) bears a striking resemblance to his subject. Within his agitated portrayal there’s much sly humor, and traces of the inspiring charisma Newton both deployed and disavowed. Yet emphasis falls by default on the figure’s long, tragic decline rather than his still-controversial ’60s glory days. This is a startling, sometimes over-the-top performance — albeit one whose unraveled air undercuts each reference to the Panthers’ community-minded ideals.
The evening also skims over or omits some of the more disturbing charges (racketeering, murder, assault) lodged against man or organization at various times. As a result, “A Huey P. Newton Story” may dismay some observers on both sides of an ongoing Black Panther debate. Of course, as the title suggests, this is just one among many possible interps.
Attention is kept sharply focused by David Welles’ lighting; photographs taken by Newton (primarily of seagulls and a setting sun) are projected on a wall to lesser effect.
The piece owes much of its drive and variety to composer Marc Anthony Thompson’s live sound design, which weaves together original sampled music, old news snippets and street interviews. His sonic pastiche is as compelling as Smith’s textual one.
The show follows its Magic dates with an East Bay run under the auspices of co-presenter Oakland Ensemble Theatre. This spring, S.F.’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre will offer local playwright Robert Alexander’s long-delayed take on the subject, “Servant of the People: The Rise and Fall of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party.”