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Baseball brawl revisited in 'Juan and John'

Baseball brawl revisited in 'Juan and John'

In the opening scene of his meandering one-man play "Juan and John," Roger Guenveur Smith plays himself as a boy in 1965. He is frozen in horror while witnessing a startling incident that, one day, would provide the inspiration for his new show at off-Broadway's Public Theater.
The incident was the infamously ugly baseball brawl in which San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal struck Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro in the head with a bat.
A self-proclaimed Dodger fanatic known in his childhood as "Roger Dodger," Smith tearfully faces the audience as black-and-white images of the fight appear on the display behind him. Suddenly, the scene is punctuated by his unexpected, prolonged scream, which fills the Public's intimate Shiva Theater before dissipating into the next scene.
The scream serves as an abrupt theatrical detour and a telling prelude to the emotional fury and sudden changes in direction that pervade this powerful but cluttered historical drama.
Disturbing images of the melee _ Marichal menacingly wielding the bat, blood streaming from Roseboro's head _ were instantly and irreversibly ingrained in baseball's collective memory, so much so that the fallout likely delayed Marichal's entry into the Hall of Fame. He was finally inducted in 1983, but only after a personal appeal on his behalf by Roseboro.
Smith uses the Marichal-Roseboro incident _ and the eventual reconciliation that followed _ as the basis for his narrative and a jumping-off point for a fragmented, autobiographical sketch.
The playwright also does his best to cram into his roughly 90-minute show a kind of all-encompassing tribute to 1965, a widely tumultuous year in American history that included the Watts race riots in Los Angeles, the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in Alabama, the assassination of Malcolm X, U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic and the entry of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam.
Smith's nostalgia isn't limited to the political landscape. He also devotes a section of his play to the music and dance moves of the day, before veering back to baseball and the details of his own life and personal catharsis.
His diligence in sketching so many different aspects of historical context ultimately detracts from the telling of his main narrative.
Smith's displays a natural comfort and effectiveness acting in a solo drama, putting forth an evocative performance that is compelling in its fierceness. He has created and performed four other plays at the Public, including "A Huey P. Newton Story," his acclaimed solo portrait of the co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
Smith is joined in "Juan and John" by his longtime collaborator Marc Anthony Thompson, whose video and sound design is at times innovative and tasteful.
In other moments, however, Thompson employs a rapid-fire approach, bombarding the audience with an overbearing blitz of images, some of which appear for no more than fractions of a second.
All tickets for "Juan and John" are $10. It is the first play of the Public LAB season, an annual series that presents scaled-down productions of new plays, in association with LAByrinth Theater Company.
The play, which is accompanied by a companion exhibit of photos and memorabilia from 1965, runs through Dec 20.