PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Roger Guenveur Smith

By Robert Simonson
November 25, 2009

With his new play Juan and John, Roger Guenveur Smith gets a little more personal.

In his best known theatrical work, A Huey P. Newton Story, he personified, with electrifying intensity, the controversial and conflicted Black Panther in all his charismatic contradictions. The piece, revived many times, won him an Obie Award and was made into a telefilm by Spike Lee. His new work takes him back to the turbulent 1960s, specifically to one of the more infamous events in baseball history. On Aug. 22, 1965, during a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. While the Giants' Juan Marichal was at bat, he suddenly turned on Dodgers catcher John Roseboro and attacked him with a bat. The resulting, bloody, team-wide donnybrook would last for 15 minutes, and would grant both players a not-necesssarily-enviable place in baseball history. Ten years later, however, the two men amazingly became the best of friends. When John Roseboro died in 2002 Juan Marichal spoke at his funeral and said, "The greatest thing that ever happened in my life was John Roseboro forgiving me." In his play, Smith examines these men, their turbulent times and how they are connected to his childhood and his present life. Smith talked to Playbill.com about the game he saw as a child that continues to have an impact on him.

Playbill.com: So you actually saw the game on television in which the fight broke out between Juan Marichal and John Roseboro?
Roger Guenveur Smith: I did. I was a Dodgers fan.

Playbill.com: Even when they moved to Los Angeles.
RGS: (Laughs) Yes. Even when they moved to Los Angeles. I grew up in California. So I was an L.A. Dodgers fan, not a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. My father have been a fan of Jackie Robinson. We went to a lot of Dodgers games. It was a fun thing to do for a father and son. They were playing San Francisco that Sunday afternoon.

Playbill.com: Why did the fight break out? What was the incident?
RGS: Why did they fight? Wow. Marichal was a pitcher. Roseboro was a catcher. Marichal was at bat and Koufax was pitching for the Dodgers. And Marichal had been knocking Dodgers back the whole game. He was throwing close to them to intimidate them. One batter took a dive and another hit the dirt. So Koufax, being the Dodgers' pitcher, was supposed to retaliate. Koufax was not that kind of intimidating player, because he was really scared. He threw so hard, he thought if he hit somebody he might kill them. So Roseboro told him "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of him." He gets the pitch from Koufax while Marichal was batting and he throws the ball back to Koufax very close to Marichal's head. And Marchical turns around and said "Why did you do that?" And Roseboro stands up and says a few choice expletives. And Marichal lost it and hit him in the head with his bat. There's blood everywhere. The teams cleared the benches. They fought for about 15 minutes. It was ugly. It was the most notorious fight in baseball history.

Playbill.com: Were they suspended?
RGS: Marichal was. He was suspended for five games and was fined $1,750, which at the time was the largest fine up to that point in baseball. The suspension didn't seem like a lot, but it was a very close pennant race. He wound up being suspended for the equivalent of two starts, which was the margin by which the Dodgers won the pennant. It was definitely something that affected that season, but also subsequent seasons. Marichal, though he continued to have an outstanding career, became a persona non grata. When he became eligible for the Hall of Fall five years after his retirement, one would have thought he would have been voted in unanimously. But he didn't make it on the first ballot. He didn't make it on the second ballot. He only made it on the third ballot because John Roseboro stepped up and made it clear that he had forgiven Marichal and he hoped the baseball writers would do the same.

Playbill.com: You reached out to Marichal for this play. How did you find him?
RGS: Oh, it was a very lucky course of events. I have a colleague at Macalester College, who had a colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, Rob Ruch, who had written the definitive history of Dominican baseball, and he just happened to have been going to the Dominican Republic, where they were honoring Juan Marichal at the 25th anniversary of his election to the Hall of Fame. And he put the word into Marichal's ear that there was this gentleman who was interested in writing about his life, and focusing on what I call the remarkable friendship of Marichal and Roseboro. But it is a remarkable friendship they were able to forge after not having spoken to each other for ten years.

Playbill.com: So are you going to impersonate these people in your show as you did Huey Newton?
RGS: Not as I did Huey Newton. Huey was pretty full on. But there will be suggestions of these men throughout the piece.

Playbill.com: It seems like you're using this incident to address matters both larger than it at that time, and also things more personal.
RGS: Absolutely. 1965 was a crucial year in American history, kicking off with the murder of Malcolm X and going to the march on Selma, "Bloody Sunday"; our incursions into Vietnam; the conflagration in Watts. It was a year of great pop music music as well. A crazy, violent moment. And we lived through it all. The incident on Aug. 22, 1965, is colored not only by the temper of these two gentlemen but the temper of the times. Juan Marichal's family was in the Dominican Republic, as were 23,000 U.S. troops. John Roseboro's family was in South Los Angeles and had just gone through the Watts riots. In fact, Roseboro and his teammates, many of them, lived in South Los Angeles, and had to go from Dodgers Stadium, playing in front of 50,000 cheering people, to their homes through the riot zone. There were tremendous professional pressures these men were operating under, but also personal and political ones as well. At bottom is this idea of redemption and forgiveness and Detente on a very personal level.

Playbill.com: How do you talk about these things in the play?
RGS: I'm working in collaboration with Marc Anthony Thompson, with whom I've been working since 1992. He did the sound design for A Huey P. Newton Story. Marc Anthony has created a wonderful, original score, but also enjoined his score with imagery. We're using a multi-media approach to complement a text which is culled not only from interviews with the Roseboro family and Marichal family and from the books that they wrote, for they both wrote autobiographies, but also my reflections on not only that period but the present moment in my life, which I hope will match up in a constructive way.