Michael Grossberg of the Columbus Dispatch looks at a new play, Juan and John by Roger Guenveur Smith, a one-man show that narrates how, after a bloody brawl at home plate, baseball players John Roseboro and Dominican player Juan Marichal forged a complex friendship.
Marichal, one of the first pro stars to emerge from the Dominican Republic, attacked Roseboro with his bat on Aug. 22, 1965, during a game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The attack – one of the most notorious on-field fights in baseball history – shocked Roger Guenveur Smith, a 10-year-old fan who was watching the game on television in his Los Angeles home.
“It was one of the most-traumatic memories of my childhood to see one of my heroes, John Roseboro, bleeding in black-and-white right there on TV,” Smith said.
The incident – and what happened years later – inspired Smith as an adult to create Juan and John, a performance piece about rage, revenge, race and redemption.
The Wexner Center for the Arts will present Smith’s solo show, which will open tonight in the Wexner performance space.
“It’s a biblical story, supposing that Abel had survived Cain’s blow,” Smith said.
“Marichal, undoubtedly in a moment of madness, meant to kill Roseboro. How could a professional athlete in his prime, with a hard piece of wood, not expect to kill another man with an unprotected blow to the head?”
Smith felt such betrayal and anger as he watched the incident unfold that he torched his Marichal baseball card while chanting the mantra of the Watts riots that had taken place that summer in Los Angeles: “Burn, baby, burn.”
As Smith grew up, his feelings shifted as he watched Marichal, a Giants pitcher and future Hall of Famer, and Roseboro – a Dodgers catcher, a four-time All-Star and native of Ashland, Ohio – make peace and become friends.
” Juan and Jo h n became a piece about forgiveness and redemption,” said Smith, who plays both title characters and others in the 75-minute one-act.
“And when Roseboro died in 2002, his honorary pallbearer was Marichal. Juan said: ‘The greatest thing that happened in my life was John Roseboro forgiving me. I wish he’d been my catcher.'”
Smith, who presented A Huey P. Newton Story at the Wexner Center in 1998, weaves the incident in Juan and John with the socially and politically turbulent 1960s and early ’70s.
Historical footage from the era is incorporated into Marc Thompson’s multimedia projections and sound design.
Chuck Helm, the Wexner Center director of performing arts, saw Smith perform the piece in 2009 at New York’s Public Theatre.
“I love the way he takes these historical moments that mean something to him personally but also weaves in the context of the time,” Helm said.
“Smith uses baseball as a way to focus on what was happening with the Watts riots, the Black Panther movement and the U.S. invading the Dominican Republic.”
Smith, 55, wove his life into the story.
About a week before the televised game in August 1965, Smith had witnessed violence, looting and burning during the Watts riots.
“My father stood in front of his motel to prevent them from burning it down and indicate that it was a black-owned business,” he said.
“I linked those two events in my mind. … To me, Juan Marichal was the greatest villain of my childhood – worse than Richard Nixon.”
Smith began to change his mind in 1975, when the Dodgers picked up Marichal in the final year of his career. Roseboro, who had retired in 1970, called a press conference.
“Out of the goodness of his heart, Roseboro said that he had forgiven Marichal, and the city of Los Angeles should be able to forgive him as well,” Smith said. “That resonated.”
Roseboro’s nephew, Gahanna resident Tony Roseboro, admires Smith’s show, which he saw in New York.
“I think my uncle would have thought that Roger hit the nail on the head,” said Roseboro, an assistant city attorney in Columbus.
“The moral of the story is that despite racial or socioeconomic differences, people can still find common ground and come together.”
Juan and John
WEXNER CENTER FOR THE ARTS, PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1871 N. HIGH ST. Columbus, Ohio (614-292-3535, WWW.WEXARTS.ORG)
SHOWTIMES 8 tonight through Saturday night and 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS $18, or $15 for members, $10 for students