For several years, starting in 2002, Smith co-hosted the popular spoken-word open-mic nights at Shadow Lounge. "He's one of those artists you always root for," says Shadow Lounge's former owner, Justin Strong. (The venue closed last year.)
Since 2003, Smith's also been a stage actor, with professional credits at Pittsburgh Playwrights, New Horizons Theater and now-defunct Kuntu Repertory Theatre. Away from the stage, he just started a new job as site coordinator for the K-5 after-school program at Pittsburgh Concord, in Carrick. But it was through stage work that he met Mark Clayton Southers, the Playwrights founder and artistic director who helped him develop The Book of Ezra.
"I knew he's a survivor of a lot of things emotionally," says Southers, who has directed Smith in works including August Wilson's King Hedley, and who's also directing Book of Ezra. "I wanted him to tell his story to enlighten folks and to see how he became a poet."
The 80-minute show is built from poetry and personal storytelling about what Smith calls "defining moments" in his life. It opens with Smith drawing lines between young, unarmed African-American men recently gunned down in the street — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown — and his own son, Amaru Williams: "Will my son be the next one shot on his way home from the store?"
Smith is acutely aware that for the first 10 years of his son's life, "I really wasn't there as consistently as I should have been." He notes that none of his friends growing up had fathers at home, either. He adds, "It makes me feel like I almost began to create a cycle of men not being there."
Amaru and Smith's daugher, Zuri Smith, live with their mother; Amaru attends Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. But while Smith says he's making up for lost time as a father, he wishes he had more to fall back on: "Sometimes I wish I would have had some talks with my dad — I'm not blaming him, but I think it would have been helpful for me to understand, ‘What does a man go through in these situations?'"
"I just imagine," he says, "what if my dad wrote his story out for me?"
Smith now lives in Perry Hilltop with his girlfriend and her two young children. He says he's slowly improving his relationship with his own father, who's now a social worker: "I think I'm beginning to humanize him, instead of just, ‘the dad that wasn't there, the dad that wasn't there.'"
Book of Ezra covers a lot of ground. On a stage augmented by images on a widescreen TV, Smith tells stories as diverse as: his reaction, as a fourth-grader and aspiring astronaut, to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger; the day that stealing cigarettes made him an actor; and how he was once assaulted by a former middle-school classmate because he now lived in the wrong neighborhood.
But if the show ranges wide, its mission is focused.
In The Book of Ezra, Smith asks, "How am I going to prepare my son for a world that seems not to value his life?" Then he answers himself: "I got to get it together for him. He deserves that."