Category: Archive

The Black & The Green: Screen star Roger Guenveur Smith enjoys immediacy of stage

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

His first solo project as a young actor was a production called “An Evening with Frederick Douglass.”
“It was very long, even for my mother,” he remembered, with a laugh.
Later as a graduate student at Yale, Smith got a better grounding in the material working as an editorial assistant on the Douglass papers. In the meantime, a new show was evolving. “Frederick Douglass Now” has had been performed in numerous venues and contexts over the past two decades. He actor/writer brings it to the Irish Arts Center for a six-week run alternating with Donal O’Kelly’s “The Cambria.”
“No matter what I’m doing on screen, I always return to the theater because it’s my home,” said Smith, who was a co-star with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in the Ridley Scott-directed “American Gangster.”
“As a writer, editor, actor and director,” he said. “It allows me a more immediate way of making the statements that I think are essential. It’s an immediate opportunity to touch an audience.”
But he’s always looking for opportunities to combine the two. And this is what happened with his play, “A Huey Newton Story.” After giving 600 performances all over the world, he had the opportunity, via long-time collaborator Spike Lee, to put it on the screen in 2001.
“Even though Spike is only 5-5 or 5-6, we still see eye to eye on a lot of issues,” said the 6-foot-2 Smith. “I would like to think that we have enriched each other’s work.”
To date, the 50-year-old star has been in eight Lee movies, including “Malcolm X” and “Summer of Sam.”
Of “American Gangster,” his most recent high-profile film, he said: “It was a tremendous opportunity. I got to go to Thailand. It was my first time in Asia.”
Jumping out from his TV resume is the Washington DC-set “K Street,” directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. “It was completely improvised,” he said of the show that also starred Mary McCormack and political strategists James Carville and Mary Matalin. He has also guest-starred in shows from “Oz” to “Third Watch.”
“I’ve had a good string of blessings in which I’ve been able to work not only in the avant garde in the political realm, but also in the popular realm,” he said.
He’s happy, too, to be involved in projects in both his native L.A., where he has his home, and in New York, where his 16-year-old daughter, an aspiring filmmaker, is in school.
Smith’s parents, who grew up in the segregated South – his mother, a dentist from Charleston, S.C., and his father, a lawyer from Portsmouth, Va. – were always supportive of his work as a writer and actor. He said: “They were gracious enough to allow me to pursue my interests and my passions.”
They had traveled to the “promised land” on the West Coast, much like Huey Newton had gone there as a small child with his Louisianan family.
There was a strong connection with Louisiana in Smith’s own background. “I grew up with people who were from the 7th ward in New Orleans,” he said. The fact they kept their culture “absolutely intact” in California is something that has inspired a lot of his work.
His “Inside the Creole Mafia,” which he co-wrote for the stage with Mark Broyard, deals with “the very intricate structure of color consciousness and Creole culture.”
He added: “There is both a pre-Katrina and a post-Katrina version.”
For now, it’s back to Frederick Douglass, who he said was known as the Black Daniel O’Connell. “It’s exciting that an Irish ensemble would take on this material and link it in a profound way with what I’m doing,” Smith said.

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