Author: Daniel Horowitz
Roger Guenveur Smith performed “The Watts Towers Project” in Keck Theater on Friday, Jan. 4, the second of his two solo performances here at Occidental. Like his first performance “Frederick Douglass Now,” “The Watts Towers Project” exhibits Smith’s vast creative prowess.
Smith ’77 is Occidental’s 2011 G. William Hume Fellow in the Performing Arts, and this performance demonstrated exactly why he earned that fellowship. According to the Occidental website, “Bill Hume ‘50 M’52,” the fellowship’s namesake, “taught music, speech and history at Occidental before being named director of Thorne Hall in 1958. He spent almost 20 years at Occidental, also serving as director of student activities.” Smith has joined the ranks of “previous Hume Fellows [including] violinist Hilary Hahn, singers Federica von Stade and Jennifer Larmore and the comic theater ensemble Culture Clash.”
“The Watts Towers Project” is a monumentally complex and intricate work that articulates a deeply personal and socially interwoven history of Los Angeles. The show merges monologue, dance, music and images of the Watts Towers, incorporating many different stories and historical references to create a compelling narrative pieced together from “raw material scavenged from memory … and amnesia,” as Smith said during the play. Smith’s website describes “The Watts Towers Project” as “a jazz-infused meditation on solo endeavor, inspired by the Simon Rodia masterwork which has withstood riots, earthquakes and civic indifference.”
The performance’s subject material is ostensibly the Watts Towers, but really includes all of Los Angeles and especially Smith himself. The play was truly a multifaceted “upward archaeology,” mirroring its construction of the Towers.
Politics professor Regina Freer said, “As an L.A. native … [the play] resonated with me … It made me think.”The performance received a wide range of opinions. Some students considered it “hard to follow” or “esoteric,” while others called it “phenomenal” and a “powerful personal narrative.”
Andres Quispe-Hansen (senior) called the play a “57-minute acid trip of black power,” referring to the surreal, stream-of-consciousness style and the theme of self-empowerment.
If you were unfortunate or negligent enough to miss both of Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo performances at Occidental—”Frederick Douglass Now” and “The Watts Towers Project”—I recommend searching for one of his performances elsewhere. He has had various shows in L.A., including his Obie Award-winning “A Huey P. Newton Story” and his recent play “Juan and John,” so it’s worth keeping an eye out for future shows. Smith is a talented, captivating, must-see actor and the presence of his work in the annals of our cultural history adds significantly to Occidental’s legacy.
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