The picture is one of the most searing and memorable images of the 1960s: A stern-faced black man, dressed in leather, holds a rifle while sitting in a wide-backed rattan chair. The photo was reproduced and plastered on thousands of dorm-room walls and inside tenement slums.
The man is Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther party, both revolutionary protester and gentle poet. Flash-forward to 1989 and there's another Huey P. Newton, dying in a pool of his own blood on the streets of Oakland in a crack deal gone bad.
How Newton went from one image to the next -- and with all stops in between, including exile in Cuba, academic success, FBI harassment and a 33-month prison sentence that was later overturned -- is the focus of A Huey P. Newton Story. Actor Roger Guenveur Smith's intense one-man show brings the man and the myth right into your face, complete with screaming, subtlety, a bevy of tics, odd mannerisms and a constant stream of cigarette smoke. Sound engineer Marc Anthony Thompson jars the audience with a barrage of original and familiar music, audio clips and sonic scramblings. So much for a nice, polite evening out to a play.
"In theater, we're looking for conflict and drama. Huey was a man of many contradictions who lent himself to the dramatic form," Smith says. "The man most Americans know, if they know him at all, is from that picture. He was very much engaged in a struggle with American society, but also with himself, a classic confrontation. In that sense, Huey is very Shakespearean."
Smith, who is a familiar face in most of Spike Lee's movies -- most memorably the stutterer gripping photos of Malcom and Martin in Do the Right Thing and the biracial cop Gary in the vastly underrated Get On the Bus -- is also currently shooting a part in Lee's next film, Summer of Sam. Shortly after Newton's death, Smith began researching his "rich and disturbing life." Today, the Black Panther story has been reduced in memory to an all-too-simple image of guns and shouts of "Black Power!" The "real" Newton remains difficult to pin down.
"That's why I call it 'A Huey P. Newton Story,' " says Smith. "I would never be so presumptuous as to do the story. Only Huey could do that. But most of the show is Huey speaking about Huey, and about 85 percent of what I say are his own words taken from his writings, speeches and interviews."
"The questions he asks about himself, that's the most provocative part of the play."
A Huey P. Newton Story runs September 1013 at 8 p.m. at the Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. 8 p.m. $25 general admission/$20 subscribers, students and seniors. Performance is for mature audiences due to adult language and subject matter. Call 520-0055.