Roger Guenveur Smith in Juan and John
(© Joan Marcus)
Roger Guenveur Smith in Juan and John
(© Joan Marcus)
When you realize the Juan of Roger Guenveur Smith's Juan and John, now at the Public Theater, is former San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal and the John is Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro and that the dramatic incident linking them is the beating the former gave the latter with a baseball bat on August 22, 1965, you'll assume this new solo show is about baseball.

You'll be right, but you won't recognize until some time into the ultimately extremely moving 75-minute intermissionless monologue that Smith is offering much more than a middle-aged man's recollection of his boyhood obsession with the great American pastime and the disillusioning effect one of its uglier moments had on him. What Smith -- whose father was an African-American lawyer and motel owner and whose mother was the motel's co-owner and who was often mistaken for white -- delivers is a cleverly disguised sermon on forgiveness in a racist society.

Telling his history with the Marichal-Roseboro fracas, Smith touches every emotional base. In recounting the bloody encounter, he also puts it in the context of family -- his failed marriage and the bonds with his daughter as well as with his parents. Not stopping there, he frames his tale of reconciliation and redemption in the context of the country's battle over civil rights. Indeed, from time to time designer Justin Townsend dims the lights on Smith so that fast-paced projections on a screen behind him remind the audience of the figures and events in play at the same time Marichal and Roseboro got heated over an accidental beaning.

The aching beauty of Smith's tale is that he ties in the healing of the Marichal-Roseboro rift with his own action in response to the exchange he witnessed while watching the fateful game on television at home. He plucked the Juan Marichal baseball card from his collection and put a match to it, while chanting one of the slogans of the day: "Burn, baby, burn!"

That cry alone widens the import of his small yet resonating gesture, implying the infuriated tenor of the times and suggesting that the grazing of Marichal's ear was a metaphor for the larger racial intolerance of a period marked by inner-city riots -- just as the players' eventual reconciliation is a metaphor for a nation's slow recovery.

Although Smith sometimes allows his panegyric to become a bit diffuse -- several times he stops talking to dance about in slow motion -- he never allows his verbal and physical digressions to sever his compelling narrative.