The hope that “Juan and John” isn’t one and done in L.A. by Roger Guenveur Smith

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Photo by Neil Liefer from his 2008 book, “Ballet In The Dirt: The Golden Age Of Baseball”

Roger Guenveur Smith holds out hope that, based on overwhelming audience response, a two-week run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City with his one-man play, “Juan and John,” will be extended past Sunday’s closing night.

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The cathartic performance he crafted based on his searing response to Juan Marichal attacking John Roseboro with a bat in the bottom of the third inning of a Giants-Dodgers game at Candlestick Park in August of 1965 plays off violence and forgiveness, conflict and redemption, and making peace – just as Roseboro did with Marichal man years later.

Smith, who ties his memories of the event to having been a 6-year old living through the Watts Riots just a week earlier, growing up a die-hard Dodgers fan (and despising all that is Giants related) and then dealing with divorce and a strained relationship with his own daughter, has already taken his play to New York, Santo Domingo, Pittsburgh, and Columbus, Ohio over the last two years. His “optimistic speculation” is that he can next visit Marichal territory — San Francisco.

Smith, still able to hear the echoes of the crowds at Dodger Stadium these days living in Echo Park, took the time to reflect on how the L.A. audiences have embraced his performance, how it relates to current events, and why the Dodgers from the early 1960s continues to live on his memory:

Question: Every night, when you stand in the lobby and receive immediate reaction from the audience, what kind of things do you hear from Dodgers or Giants fans who still envision that Marichal-Roseboro moment as if it was yesterday?

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Smith: It’s funny because we’ve had a lot of San Francisco fans come and tell me how they saw this from a different perspective. Quite a few have actually said they were there in the park that day. It’s interesting to think if that incident were to happen this year, there’d be thousands of flip-camera versions of it on YouTube, all over TV, talk shows. But when you try to find footage of it today from Major League Baseball, the actual part of that happening the game has been taken out. Apparently it’s been destroyed because it was deemed inflammatory. We’re just coming off the biggest urban conflict in U.S. history the week before in L.A., and there’s a line in the play where I talk about how someone sent Marichal a letter warning him that he’d be picked off just like John Kennedy in Dallas (two years earlier) if he ever came to L.A., and if you know the typography of Dodger Stadium, you could actually imagine how someone could be sitting in the hills out there and in fact shoot him. That was a very serious moment.

Question: Can people look at it differently after they see you perform it, work through it, and come to your conclusions?

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Smith: I know there are certain fans of a certain generation who are definitely still traumatized by it – like I was. I really had problems in particular when Marichal ended his career with the Dodgers in 1975. For me, that was unconscionable that they betrayed history in that way. Even though Roseboro, out of the goodness of his heart, having been retired five years earlier, called a press conference and told everyone, ‘I’ve forgiven him,’ I couldn’t do that.

When I met Marichal years later, I did so with great trepidation, knowing I was going to shake the hand of the No. 1 villain of my childhood. But even though the passion still reverberates, I was so move by what Marichal told me: ‘I apologize, and I hope you can forgive me.’

Question: But in the play, you say you reacted by telling him basically that you don’t accept his apology.

Smith: That’s some dramatic license. And I think it’s kind of a segue into the next tragedy we’re dealing with: The beating of Bryan Stow. It’s why we put the picture (the artists sketches of the two suspects in the recent Dodger Stadium Opening Day parking lot beating) up on the screen (in the play). I imagined that moment in the parking lot.

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Question: Maybe in 20 years, there’ll be a play about Bryan Stow and how forgiveness and redemption will be the themes all over again, with a Dodgers-Giants angle?

Smith: Maybe I’ve already made that first chapter. I’m simply hoping there will be some resolution – first, that he’ll come out of his coma and live to see his children finish college, now courtesy of Barry Bonds.

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I was there on Opening Day (at Dodger Stadium on March 31), and there were knuckleheads in my section, as there usually are. But think about it: there was also this implicit militarism and themes of violence at the game. There were nine cannons going off as each of the players were introduced. There was a stealth bomber flying by overhead. That’s no excuse for what was done – that barbaric savagery — but the game for whatever reason was couched in all this patriotism of the National Anthem and God Bless America and these cannons and the bombers flying, which is something I don’t think any child should have to be exposed to. It’s a glorification of war.

And we had a game that was usually started at 1 p.m. delayed until 5 p.m., giving people four more hours to drink. And now it’s a night game, and part of the Stow suit (against the Dodgers) is that the lighting in the parking lot was inferior. It’s tough enough sometimes coming out of the brightly lit stadium and negotiating the traffic in the parking lot without getting hit by a car, let alone by hoodlums.

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Question: Has all that pushed you into not attending games this year after that incident?

Smith: Oh, sure. I think particularly because of the way the Stow tragedy was initially addressed. The Dodgers officials said that it was an aberration and everyone had a great time. Those who go on a regular basis know it’s not true. I mean, a few seasons ago a man was murdered in parking lot at Dodger Stadium after a Dodgers-Giants game. You can’t keep sweeping those things under the rug.

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It brought up a lot of issues in terms of violence, not just at the stadium, but in our city, and our society in general, and why we shouldn’t need to feel that just because we’re going to a game we’re not exposed to violence on a daily basis. It’s not just happening to a 42-year-old white male baseball fan, but also to women and children in domestic abuse cases.

We have a serious problem within our communities. And that’s another thing I’m trying to address in this piece. It’s just simply Juan and John, but a reconciliation of all kinds of conflicts that stay with us as if we’ve been hit upside the head with a baseball bat.

I’d like to think the play is transformative for the writer and performer as well as the audience. I wasn’t just thinking of myself. The play is one thing, but taking action off stage is a whole other thing. For my daughter to tell ‘I don’t think I know anything about you except what I see you doing on stage’ is a damning comment from a child. We don’t want to be known through our performances. We want to be known and recognized and understood by our capabilities of communicating and acting in the most humanistic ways.

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Question: Can you explain how the reaction to the audience has differed in all the places you’ve taken this play, and how it differed from the L.A. response?

Smith: Certainly, the L.A. audience was the most passionate, especially about the Dodgers of 1965. They know it very well. It was obvious that folks came to the theatre equipped to deal with that nostalgia, and that’s a great thing. But there were also people who came knowing nothing about baseball. I designed it that way to make it transcend the sport.

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In New York, it was in a workshop environment. Juan and his wife and daughter saw it there, and it was a reunion for him and some of the Roseboro family who hadn’t seen each other since John’s memorial service (in 2002).. In Santo Domingo, with an audience wearing ear buds and listening to the translation, that was wonderful. In Pittsburgh, which is such a great baseball town, it was at the August Wilson Theatre for African American Culture, where it was so historically inspired, in a place named after the master who did plays about every decade in the 20th century from a different aspect of African American life. Columbus, Ohio, was close to Roseboro’s home turf (Ashland, Ohio), so there were more family.

If we can get this to San Francisco, I’m really looking forward to it because my daughter (Luna Ray) will be there, going to school, and it will take on a whole new perspective. She’s done her own documentary on our relationship (called “Coping” see video above).

Remember how when the incident happened, there were fans at Candlestick yelling to Roseboro that he deserved it. The passions were very high. And even though Marichal was contrite, the arch bishop of San Francisco condemned him as setting a bad example.

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Question: What kind of person is Marichal after you get to know him better?

Smith: It’s crazy that as a young adult, I didn’t want to go along with whatever Roseboro was saying about Marichal, forgiving him. I thought it was just some kind of public relations thing. I was never going to forgive him.

But now, I sort of consider him as a father figure to me. He’s exceedingly gracious. It’s been a beautiful transformation. You still can anticipate what his obituary will say: ‘Juan Marichal, the dominating Hall of Fame pitcher from the 1960s and ’70s who is best remembered for . . . ”

He told me he couldn’t stand being enemies with one person. He’s so mild mannered. So highly respected, and understandably so in his homeland, for all he’s done in the Dominican Republic, working for the people to channel the new-found prosperity of the Dominican players in the major leagues.

He’s very prideful, and self-conscious, and very much wanting to tell his side of the story for the record. Both he and John transcended our stereotype of the mindless jock.

When I met Roseboro the first time (as a kid), he wasn’t a ball player, but someone who was interested in community affairs. He was kind enough to bend over and give me an autograph – which I still can’t find. It’s somewhere in my mom’s garage.

But (as is described in the play), that’s where I also did find this term paper that I did (at age 16) about the Watts Riots – but I had forgotten the fact that, before my dad and I went to Western Avenue to check on the hotel that he owned, we were at Dodger Stadium that Friday night watching a Dodgers-Pirates game. That says something about my dad, who would take his son, in the middle of this largest urban conflict in U.S. history, to a baseball game, trying to live a normal life, even as we could see flames all around the city. And then taking me down there, to expose me to something like that kind of madness. It was a teaching moment.

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Question: At the end of the play, you hold up a Juan Marichal baseball card – like the one you said you took out of your collection, lit a match and burned up after he hit Roseboro. Is that the same card just like the one you had as a kid?

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Smith: It’s the same card, 1965. I found it just a couple of years ago, somewhere at an autograph show in East L.A. where Marichal was there signing things. I wasn’t sure if I’d remember the image. But when I saw it, yeah, that’s the one I remember – that smiling face going up in flames.

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I felt very blessed to see it again. It was a very magical moment. I had to look on the back of it again to make sure it was the same stats that went through 1964.

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(As an aside: For us, this was the baseball card we couldn’t believe we were actually seeing: The 1976 Marichal card, as a Dodger. You could tell they did something to doctor the cap, to paint it blue and put an “LA” logo on it. As it turned out, Marichal was traded by the Giants to the Boston Red Sox after the 1973 season, where he went 11-15 but had a respectable 3.82 ERA as a 35-year-old. After one year with the Red Sox in ’74, (5-1, 4.87 ERA in 11 games), the Dodgers signed him to start the ’75 season. He lasted two starts — nine runs and 11 hits in six innings, five walks and one strikeout. We didn’t actually burn this card, but we didn’t include it with the rest of the Dodgers cards wrapped up in the rubber band inside the shoe box.

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Question: There’s another line in the play where you get the audience to recall the entire Dodgers’ starting lineup from 1965 – and you get little trouble filling out the positions. Then you exclaim: ‘How do we remember this shit?’ Why do you think we remember all this?

Smith: The teams of our youth, that’s the thing. I couldn’t tell you the starting lineup from last night’s game, but I could tell you the team from August 22, 1965. The teams of our youth are something that we invested so much time, so much focus, so much pride, so much fantasy. And it never leaves us.

It’s why a play like this absolutely still resonates. But it’s also instructive for people who knew nothing about it, or were too young, or disinterested.

You come to find out that Marichal, at the end of his career, had to prove to the people of L.A. that he wasn’t a monster. He signed with the Dodgers. And in the end, it was Roseboro who came to the games and finally told him, ‘Hey man, you’re just not as intimidating people the way you used to.’ He didn’t want to hit any batters when he was pitching for the Dodgers. So he walked away after a couple of starts, but he did what he needed to do to go on with the rest of his life.

== More on Marichal and Roseboro:

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== The Center Theatre Group website, for details of the “Juan and John” production and to order tickets (linked here)
== The play is reviewed by Backstage.com (linked here)
== A review of the play and a conversation with Smith from Michael Martinez of FoxSportsWest.com (linked here)
== A feature on Smith in the Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section before the play started in L.A. (linked here).
== An L.A. Times “Culture Monster” blog post about opening night and Dodgers from the past in attendance (linked here)
== Former Dodgers GM Fred Claire remembers the incident in a 2005 column for MLB.com (linked here)

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