Roger on set with Spike
 written by Roger Guenveur Smith
In the fall of 1989 I was preparing the solo performance FREDERICK DOUGLASS NOW, a "multimedia assault" in collaboration with videographers Ben R. Caldwell and Wesley Michael Groves and sound designer Vinsula Kara.

As an homage to Huey P. Newton, who had been murdered in August of that year, I dressed the contemporary Douglass in a black leather jacket. To complement Douglass' classic Civil War recruitment broadside, "Men of Color To Arms," we used the still image of an armed Newton, photographed outside Panther headquarters.

The first advertisement for the performance, rendered as a work in progress at the Watts Towers Art Center, was the famous photograph of Newton in the wicker chair, spear and rifle in hand, but with Douglass' head superimposed on Newton's.

Late 1991 saw the development of INSIDE THE CREOLE MAFIA, a "not too dark comedy" created and performed with Mark Broyard, in which my character, in the throes of racial denial, claims that he looks " more like Kirk Douglas than Frederick Douglass and more like Huey Lewis than Huey Newton."
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS 1992, with live sound design by Marc Anthony Thompson, finds Columbus in riot-torn Los Angeles, facing the spotlight of an LAPD helicopter. He asks if he will be "done like Huey P. Newton," gunned down by "another brother."

At the Oakland Museum in 1992, during a run of FREDERICK DOUGLASS NOW presented by the Oakland Ensemble Theater, I was given a commendation by then Assemblyperson and current Congressional Representative, Barbara Lee. I accepted it "in memory of the late honorable Dr. Huey P. Newton."
Roger discusses the music in the
film and his collaboration with
Marc Anthony Thompson

By 1993, I was prepared to commence a comprehensive survey of Newton's life and work. I met Steven Adams, an Oakland native, who immediately committed to this new challenge, while producing award-winning runs of INSIDE THE CREOLE MAFIA and FREDERICK DOUGLASS NOW. I was also introduced to Fredrika Newton, Huey's widow, and Professor Melvin Newton, his brother. They graciously opened their homes to me, providing me exclusive access to unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, audio and video tapes and photo collections. With David Hilliard, former Panther Chief of Staff, and lifelong friend of Huey's, Fredrika and Melvin provided for me an invaluable vision of the man behind the myth.

The first presentation of Newton material was a reading for the Mark Taper Forum's New Works Festival in early 1994. Actor Ron Canada served as a generic journalist of sorts. We read interviews with Huey from Playboy and Oui Magazines, circa 1973/77, bracketing Newton's exile in Cuba, sitting at a table, press conference style: two microphones, a pitcher of water, and, of course, a pack of Kool cigarettes. There was a brief interval between interviews during which we played Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," by all accounts a favorite song of Huey's.
Roger on creating Huey

Roger on presenting Huey

San Francisco's Solo Mio Festival afforded an opportunity to stage A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY as a work in progress in September 1994. Marc Anthony Thompson was enlisted to enjoin archival sounds and voices with original composition in his Low Blood Studio in New York City. I joined him for an intense week of collaboration just previous to our San Francisco engagement. Marc Anthony's sound design allowed us to make the imaginative leap out of the interview format and ever-so-suggestively into the Panther Party meeting, the penthouse, the prison cell, the crackhouse, the Free Huey rally, Black Orpheus even, navigating Huey's cinematic stream of consciousness.
In San Francisco, key performance and design elements emerged. A Panther rally at the Oakland Auditorium on Huey's birthday in 1968 inspired me to use an institutional chair as the central design motif for the play. The wicker chair in which Huey had been photographed was placed on stage that night to evoke the incarcerated leader, a simple yet effective choice, which perfectly served the historical moment. The chair that I chose might also suggest a courtroom, an interrogation room, an asylum, or the gas chamber. It was ominously illuminated while Marc Anthony artfully manipulated a prologue, which concluded with a scratchy recording of Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow", soliloquy, one of Huey's favorite literary passages.

We used large projections of photographs Huey took from his Oakland penthouse, focusing on birds in flight, sunsets across the Golden Gate, and his former cell in the Alameda County Jail. My Huey would be confined to the chair, save one manic burst of energy during "Ballad of a Thin Man," which Marc Anthony mixed with the voices of Huey's contemporaries. His Kool-driven monologue would be amplified through a microphone. Sound and scenic design set, how then would a text emerge for A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY?

I'd resisted "writing" the play because as an actor I never wanted to "play the page," but rather impulses that were supported by months of immersion in Newton materials. Structured improvisation had worked for the CREOLE and COLUMBUS pieces, the latter scored live by Marc Anthony Thompson. He encouraged me to follow a similar path with HUEY. Marc Anthony asked me a series of questions, which I answered, as "Huey." Two hours later, we had organized these answers into a "play." We found that many of my "answers" were verbatim quotes from Newton, which I had unwittingly memorized. Marc Anthony came to describe A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY as a "song cycle," in which we would perform the same songs every night, but never in the same way.
Roger at the Public Theater Roger at the Public Theater Roger at the Public Theater
The Solo Mio Festival would be memorable if only for the fact that Huey's family was in attendance as were many friends and probably more than a few enemies. To play Huey P. Newton in the Bay Area while he was still so fresh in the hometown memory was truly trial by fire. One night I sought solace and inspiration with a pilgrimage to the exterior of Huey's Oakland penthouse. At my feet I found an empty, crumpled pack of Kools, as if they had been thrown out of a window for me to catch. I felt that we were on the right path.

In early 1995 Mark Seldes of Tim Robbins' Actors' Gang Company offered us the opportunity to run HUEY as a work in progress in their Hollywood warehouse space. It was a perfect match. David Welle was engaged to design lights and a proper set. His work would serve us brilliantly for the next six years.

The world premiere of A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY was commissioned by Mame Hunt of the Magic Theater, where it debuted in the fall of 1995, in a co-production with the Oakland Ensemble Theater's Zarita Dodson. We played four weeks in San Francisco and then four weeks in Oakland at Laney College.

The fall of 1996 found us in Washington D.C. at the Wooly Mammoth Theater in an extended run. It was here that Marc Anthony found his voice as an unseen "Comrade" in a running, improvised dialogue with Huey. The audience was engaged as well, in the "call and response" tradition. Until the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem in the summer of 1995, my Huey was largely self-absorbed. The direct communication with the audience and Marc Anthony's "Comrade" lent additional dimensions, which we learned to strategically engage or reject.
Roger discusses the play experience

Roger discusses his longtime collaboration with Director Spike Lee

In early 1997 we were prepared for our Off Broadway premiere at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. We'd not used the slides of Huey's photographs since our Magic/Oakland Ensemble run. The intimate theaters in which we'd subsequently been playing had not afforded us the throw space for a rear screen projection. This would be the case at the Public. David Welle responded with an enormous open frame, suspended above a matching metallic platform, which held the institutional chair, microphone stand, and an ashtray.

The Public run was graciously extended several times by our producer and host, George C. Wolfe. The final month of the engagement I was without Marc Anthony, who was recording his first Chocolate Genius album, BLACKMUSIC. It was a healthy separation, allowing me to refocus on Huey in solitary, and allowing Marc Anthony to create a beautiful new suite of songs.
In the audience at the Public was a long-time colleague, Spike Lee. Spike had always been supportive of my work on stage and we immediately began talking about how we might document A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY on film. But despite our achievements both collectively and individually, and the success of the play, A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY, starring Roger Guenveur Smith and directed by Spike Lee, was not to be an easy sell.

Producers Steven Adams, Bob L. Johnson, and Marc Henry Johnson struggled for a number of months to solicit support for a HUEY on film project. Meanwhile, Marc Anthony and I continued to refine the work in memorable engagements in Harlem, Central Park, and Brooklyn. Philadelphia and Chicago also presented award-winning runs of the play. London's Barbican Art Centre and Brussels' Kaiitheater were the venues for a successful European tour, demonstrating the international scope of interest in both our work and that of the Black Panther Party.

PBS was the first to demonstrate viable interest in our project, followed by Black Starz, the African Heritage Network, the National Black Programming Consortium, and the Ford Foundation. Our modest budget addressed, we were ready to film HUEY in the year 2000. We'd been in development for seven years.

Marc Anthony and I returned to Los Angeles in September of 2000 for an outdoor performance at Cal Plaza downtown. LAPD helicopters illuminated our gala homecoming. I then played a solo engagement at Wesleyan University, reuniting with Marc Anthony in New Orleans for our final gigs before taping the show in New York City.
The Angel Orensanz Cultural Arts Center Spike Lee behind the scenes Roger placed against the blue screen
Spike brought his A team to the table. Director of Photography Ellen Kuras, Designer Wynn Thomas, and Editor Barry Alexander Brown had earned Spike's confidence in dozens of collaborations spanning two decades. The Angel Orensanz Cultural Arts Center, a former synagogue on the Lower East Side, was chosen as the venue for the taping. Wynn Thomas' design placed Huey's platform in the midst of a two-tiered gallery, from which he would be separated by security grilling. The prison allusion was obvious, but the courtroom and the operating room were also suggested. The invited audience was asked to wear black, so that Ellen Kuras might photograph them in an eerie, fluorescent silhouette.

I generated a shooting script from hundreds of live improvised performances, incorporating the best of what had been developed in dialogue with Marc Anthony into a tight, 90 minute monologue. (Some of our performances had exceeded two hours.) Spike and Ellen coordinated twelve digibeta cameras, which came at me from every conceivable angle. Spike had been a film purist, but his work with Ellen on the Oscar-nominated FOUR LITTLE GIRLS and BAMBOOZLED had convinced him that tape is a legitimate, and cheaper, alternative to his once beloved celluloid.
The performance was shot over three days, with special set-ups for "blue screen" and other special effects. The insertion of documentary imagery in postproduction necessitated the use of huge screens, against which takes of the performance were taped. Those shots would then be edited in continuity with shots from the primary performance, which included a live audience of several hundred invited guests.

I had a number of unique challenges at the Orensanz: I was required to adhere strictly to the shooting script; the 90-minute format would not accommodate lengthy digressions. But true to the spirit of the play, beautiful improvised moments emerged, inspired by the audience's spontaneous communication with "Huey." Two women assure Huey that he is "loved." Then a man says, "And we miss you too."

I had to perform the piece with an intermission to allow the 60-minute tapes to be changed. Not wanting to lose the momentum of the first half, which concluded with the "Ballad of a Thin Man" movement sequence, I repeated the sequence to jumpstart the second act.
Roger on the play versus the film

Working with the cameras on set
Because there is no dialogue during the Dylan song, it would be the only pre-recorded sound to underscore my live performance. Otherwise any sound playback would interfere with the recording of my voice. I was therefore required to "imagine" Marc Anthony's score, some of which was faithful to what he'd created for the play, but much of which was executed in postproduction. Notable additions include the saxophones of Branford Marsalis, whose collaboration with Marc Anthony complements Huey's poetry. I worked with Branford on Spike's SCHOOL DAZE and Kasi Lemmons' EVE'S BAYOU and we've remained friends and admirers of each others' work. His contribution to HUEY is inestimable.

Researcher Leanne Clifton provided hours of documentary material, from which we might choose imagery to strategically accompany the performance. Spike respected the integrity of the play and didn't want the archival shots to be distracting, but including a very carefully selected number of them would layer the project with a cinematic and historical nuance. Disembodied voices from the original sound design became reunited with their talking heads, Richard Pryor, William F. Buckley, and Huey's mother among them. Obvious choices such as BLACK ORPHEUS, Huey's favorite film, were included, as well as odd cameos from Marlon Brando, speaking at Little Bobby Hutton's funeral, and Orson Welles, making himself up to play Macbeth, whom he describes as "a gangster with a conscience."

Through the production office of Luna Ray Films, the concerted efforts of dozens of artists and technicians were coordinated to complete A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY for our June 2001 premiere on the Black Starz network. Preview screenings nationwide received enthusiastic responses. Many of those in the audience had supported the play. As I attended these events, it felt odd not to have actually performed HUEY as a play, but to have "presented" it as a film.

My final run of the play was at the Los Angeles Theater Center in early 2001. Marc Anthony Thompson's sound design was cited with the Ovation Award, as was the play, as Production of the Year.

A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY has been seen at numerous film festivals around the world, subtitled in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. Venice, London, Oslo, Stockholm, Bilbao, Vancouver, Acapulco, Sao Paulo, Montego Bay, and Havana have been among HUEY's ports of call. Closer to home, HUEY was screened this January at the Slam Dunk Festival in Park City, Utah, as well as in St. Louis, Kansas City, and at the African Diaspora Festival in New York City.
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