When film, TV and stage actor Roger Guenveur Smith was invited to Amsterdam to perform in his solo piece “Rodney King” — one among many works he has created with composer Marc Anthony Thompson — he visited the Anne Frank House. In a “visceral and direct way,” he says he pictured Frank’s father, Otto Frank, returning to the empty, haunted space after the war, having lost two daughters and his wife.
Now, the 60-minute “Otto Frank” premieres as a Campo Santo production under the umbrella of Magic Theatre, directed by Sean San José, the new artistic director who is also a Campo Santo founding member.
It’s not Guenveur Smith’s first appearance with that inventive, 26-year-old ensemble; Campo Santo premiered his “Casa de Spirits” in 2018. Nor is it is his first appearance with the 54-year-old new plays hub Magic Theatre, where his enormously successful “A Huey P. Newton Story” — his first collaboration with Thompson — opened in 1995 and was later filmed by Spike Lee. For Guenveur Smith, who was born in Berkeley, worked with various Bay Area theaters and taught at UC Berkeley, “Otto Frank” is a brief and welcome return home in the midst of a busy career.
Guenveur Smith has embodied such figures as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Bob Marley and others, and worked with Lee on seven films. In “Otto Frank,” the eponymous character speaks directly to his beloved younger daughter, who died at Auschwitz in 1945 at the age of 15. Otto Frank died in 1980 at the age of 90.
In a recent phone chat, Guenveur Smith was voluble, eager to discuss his work and the upcoming show. With “Otto Frank,” he says, he has once again been able to “step outside of the expected cultural-racial-ethnic shackles” to pursue a compelling story. This Q&A has been edited for length.
What was your initial response to the Anne Frank House and how did you proceed from there? When I stepped into the house I had a vision of a man stepping into a now empty room, where eight people had hidden for two years. A psychic, spiritual commitment emerged in that moment. Then I did my due diligence: reading everything I could get my hands on by and about the character and visiting several Holocaust study centers in the Northeast where I was exposed to raw materials. Eventually, Marc Anthony Thompson came in to accompany me. We continued to present chunks of the work in the Northeast and Northwest and at my home theater here in LA, Bootleg Theater. It’s been a journey, of course impeded by COVID.
You worked without a director? I come out of a tradition of self-direction. When I was a rapper, no one was directing me. I incorporate hip-hop in a lot of my work. I’ve been mentored by (British actor/writer/director) Steven Berkoff, also self-directed. He has lent me psychic permission to be in charge of my own work. Also influential is (the late) Hal Holbrook who began playing Mark Twain (on stage) as an undergraduate. I began my solo work playing Frederick Douglass as an undergraduate, and I continue to play him.
How do you and Thompson collaborate? It’s different every time. With this piece, the script came first. He’s in the room, feeling the temperature, riding the depth of the piece — not only sonic design but manipulation of my voice. He’s a brilliantly gifted composer and performer of his own work… . I’m always listening to him as he’s listening to me; we work as an ensemble. It’s very much a two-person endeavor, a two-hander.
How did you approach the piece emotionally, historically? I have to find a permission, a form, a way of saying, “OK, why am I saying this and to whom am I speaking?” … With “Otto Frank,” I had to find a way to make the words work effectively. Otto speaks to his deceased daughter from beyond her time and beyond his own time as well. So it’s not simply a story from the 1940s but a man who is engaged in our present moment, not something the audience can simply walk away from and say, “Wasn’t it horrible back then?” I’d like the audience to engage in our present moment and see how it’s relevant today.
Otto Frank was white, Jewish, Dutch-German, a concentration camp survivor. How did you find ways to connect to him personally? I am a father of two daughters. That’s one of the compelling reasons for my interest in the story as well. When I say as Otto to Anne, “You are a Gemini star-crossed and stubborn and the apple of your father’s eye,” I can’t help but think of my own Gemini daughter… . Otto was a man who had a great connection to our country… . He desperately wanted to get his family to the United States as the Holocaust was impending. He was fluent in English. I don’t do it with a German accent. I’m not dressed as Otto — he was formal, natty, but I wanted to take the formality out of it. I wanted this piece to exist on a poetic plane and not simply as an impersonation. It speaks to our present day as much as to those days.
You’ve played at least one white person before, Christopher Columbus, in 1992. Are there particular challenges? That’s never been an issue for me. I played a Dominican (baseball player Juan Marichal) and others. … This story is not just about Otto Frank; it’s about the black security guard who stood up to a racist and was killed at Washington D.C.’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009. It’s a story of the man trying to get his family across the Rio Grande and drowned with his daughter. (He chokes back sobs.) It’s about the people in Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch (New Zealand). It’s all of those stories. It’s not just about 1942 Amsterdam; it’s about our present moment.
IF YOU GO:
When: March 12-27
Where: Campo Santo at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F.
Each show is followed by discussion with Roger Guenveur Smith.