Roger Guenveur Smith

Roger Guenveur Smith says the correct pronunciation of his second name “Guenveur” rhymes with “been there.”

There is an underlying profoundness to the statement because he is an immensely respected actor, director, and playwright with an impressive list of credits.

Arguably, Smith’s roles in several Spike Lee films – Gammite Yoda in “School Daze,” Smiley in “Do the Right Thing,” Rudy in “Malcolm X,” Gary in “Get on the Bus,” and Big Time Willie in “He Got Game” – are some of his most known.

But Smith’s stage work portraying influential Black historical figures like Huey P. Newton, Frederick Douglass, Bob Marley, and Rodney King, in solo shows that he also wrote, are at least a close second to his work with Lee.

Related Stories

Inside Chargers Linebacker Eric Kendricks’ Football Lineage

‘The Book of Clarence’ – A Bold Reinterpretation of Messiah Narratives

Lesser known is another work starring and written by Smith entitled “Juan and John,” which is the story of real-life former San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal’s altercation with former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro. It is partially based on events witnessed by Smith early in his life.

Guenveur is a name Smith says was passed on to him by his mother, Helen Guenveur Smith. He also respectfully cites Smith as a given name from his father, Sherman Smith. His mother is from Charleston, South Carolina, and his father is from Portsmouth, Virginia.

He credits a small family household library as the launchpad to his interest in history, which then developed into a passion for acting.

Smith said, “She [Mrs. Guenveur Smith] had a little library in our home, and the library included ‘The Narrative of the Life of an American Slave: Written by Himself,’ of course Frederick Douglass’ 1845 slave narrative, and she also had a book called ‘The World’s Great Men of Color,’ they were little one-page profiles of men throughout history.”

He resumed, “I loved to read… particularly history and biography. So, I would really say that it was all kicked off in our little home library, because independently that’s kind of where I focused… which combined my obsession with history with biography, and of course live performance.”

Although he was also passionate about sports, Smith says he surrounded himself with friends who, like him, were obsessed with history.

He remembers playing a game with his friends in which they had to name the terms and achievements of the American presidents displayed on a poster in his room.

“This was the typical kind of game I would play,” said Smith. “Of course, I always won because I was the one who had the poster in his room.”

He says his friends would often accompany him to the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, and that was a typical Saturday outing for the group.

When discussing the attempt by some to erase the history of Black people in the United States, Smith replied, “It’s impossible, isn’t it?”

He continued somewhat wryly, “Because it’s February, and it’s February every year… we’re reminded once a year there would be no America as we know it without the contributions, without the sacrifices, without the brilliance of people of African descent.”

Smith also says to preserve that history through the arts, Black people must not only create art, but also support it, and plant the seed of art into new generations so that it can prosper and grow.

He acknowledges John Coltrane’s musical composition “Alabama” and Spike Lee’s documentary film “4 Little Girls” — both which chronicle the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama — as examples of extraordinary responsive works of art focused on preserving African American history.

“If Spike had not done that film, all of those interviews, all of those memories would have simply disappeared into the ether,” said Smith. “But it takes the commitment, the hard work to bring some of this hard history to the fore so that we never forget.”

In addition to his work on projects that tell stories from the African American experience, Smith has more recently written and starred in a solo work about a non-Black historical figure, “Otto Frank.”

Frank was the father of Anne Frank, the German-Jewish girl who kept a diary about hiding from the Germans during their occupation of the Netherlands.

Smith says it is a story about a human experience comparable, in his opinion, to events happening at the Southern U.S. border today.

He also says having a racially ambiguous appearance has contributed to his ability to play racially ambiguous roles that are non-African American.

But his racially ambiguous appearance has also allowed him to portray racially ambiguous characters that are African American, like “Gary Rivers,” the cop in Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” and his role in the dark comedic stage piece “Inside the Creole Mafia.”

“The great majority of the work that I have done,” Smith concluded, “I’ve played essentially Black men. And if you look at the list of directors with whom I have worked… I’ve worked with primarily Black directors, men and women, who recognized that I, too, am ‘Africa’ America, to paraphrase Langston Hughes.”