Roger Guenveur Smith’s personal scrapbook of outrages, entitled “Juan and John,” kicks off with the famous Candlestick Park altercation of Aug. 22, 1965, between Giants pitcher Juan Marichal and Dodgers catcher John Roseboro. The former’s bat smacking the latter’s skull was a seminal event in Smith’s development, though we never quite learn why in the course of a 90-minute rant on the Kirk Douglas stage. In channeling the athletes post-fracas, Smith hits one out of the park. But when it comes to extrapolating to broader American cultural strains, or even to his own autobiography? Swing and a miss.
If Marichal and Roseboro didn’t utter the exact words Smith puts into their mouths, they ought to have, so persuasively does he bring them to life. He embodies the dignified, high-kicking Dominican taking quietly courageous stands against Jim Crow and Giants manager Alvin Dark’s condescension, effortlessly morphing into the dying Roseboro gasping for air as he tries to maintain a casual aplomb to cast away old bitterness.
All the while, that home plate showdown’s ongoing mystery grows in fascination. To this day no one can explain with certainty what went down, Smith even quoting mound pitcher Sandy Koufax to the effect that “Only three people really know what happened that day, and two of them are dead” — which only deepens the paradox, since Koufax and Marichal are both very much alive. (A different mystery is Smith’s omission of Juan and John’s later becoming Dodger teammates.)
As long as he’s weaving the baseball icons’ parallel profiles, Smith is sure-footed. But he keeps running outside the baselines to bring in forced or specious correspondences to other events of the day. Example: So distraught was he as a kid, he burned Marichal’s Topps card weeks after Watts rang to chants of “Burn, baby, burn.” That kind of glib analogy is as sociologically trenchant as the evening gets, the thesp demonstrating 20/20 hindsight in an inchoate memory collage and interpolated, barely relevant newsreel footage.
Things are no more lucid when he himself becomes the topic. Vague allusions to a divorce, and a difficult father-daughter relationship, keep popping up without any perceivable arc or point of connection to the Juan/John tale. Roger plays “Roger” with alarming nervous energy and shortness of breath which, coupled with a habit of turning tears on and off like a faucet, works against his memoir’s emotional authenticity.
On press night Smith generously acknowledged the helming of Patricia McGregor, but her “associate director” credit suggests the lion’s share of shaping was done by Smith himself. To take this promising material to the next level, it might be as well to call in some directorial and dramaturgical support in long relief.