Forty-five years' worth of violent TV later, it might sound tame. But in August 1965, watching star baseball pitcher Juan Marichal slam John Roseboro's skull with a bat traumatized young Roger Guenveur Smith.
Smith was just 10, an ardent fan of catcher Roseboro and his Los Angeles Dodgers, whose pennant race with Marichal's Giants had taken them to San Francisco. Smith was home in L.A., watching on TV when, during an argument at home plate, Marichal opened the gash in his opponent's scalp.
This was the era of a three-network TV culture that seldom showed real -- let alone spontaneous -- violence. With baseball still the revered national pastime, to see Roseboro gushing blood "was alarming ... probably akin to Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby," Smith says today.
The Los Angeles-based actor and writer, renowned for one-man takes on such figures as Huey P. Newton and Frederick Douglass, visits Pittsburgh Feb. 18 and 19 with Juan and John, a solo show built around that long-ago incident.
Juan and John, first performed in 2009 at New York's Public Theater, ranges well beyond baseball. Smith notes that the incident occurred a week after the Watts riots -- and that Roseboro and his family lived in the riot zone. Both Roseboro and the Dominican Republic-born Marichal were black men who'd faced Jim Crow in baseball's mid-century minor leagues. As Smith speculates. "What if a white player had been involved?"
Smith also incorporates reflections on his childhood, marriage and religion. (The New York Times called Juan and John "sometimes rambling.") But the show inevitably returns to the central drama: the high-kicking Marichal brushing back Dodgers, then feeling the ball whiz by his own ear as he stood to bat and Roseboro threw back to the mound. When the typically good-natured Marichal protested, Roseboro responded with an epithet, and Marichal struck.
Years later, the two men became friends; when Roseboro died, in 2002, Marichal was an honorary pallbearer. Smith -- who thanks University of Pittsburgh historian Rob Ruck for his help -- even performed Juan and John in Santo Domingo, for a crowd including Marichal and his family.
The story "has kind of Biblical resonance," Smith says. "It's almost supposing, 'What if Abel survived?'"
Roger Guenveur Smith performs Juan and John 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 18, and 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 19. August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20. 412-258-2700 or www.augustwilsoncenter.org
- Roger Guenveur Smith