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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
King Hedley II
The hustling camaraderie of Jitney set in the 1970s¸ the sensual optimism of Seven Guitars set in the 1940s are nowhere to be seen in August Wilson's bleak powerful new play,King Hedley II. Set in the 1980s, a decade of disillusionment for African-Americans, it is the eighth in Wilson's proposed ten-play cycle chronicling African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, which has gleaned him two Pulitzer Prizes and seven New York Drama Critics Circle awards.
King Hedley II has the most somber monochromatic tone of any of the previous plays and is best understood in contrast to the culture of the other decades. Sequentially, it uses some of the Seven Guitars characters. The set, back yards in Pittsburgh's Hill District, is the same but devastatingly ravaged by the blight of Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" which cut federal support to many programs needed by African Americans.
The original Hedley in Seven Guitars was an obsessed old man who commits a murder. Ruby, one of the sisters in that semi-realizes her dream of becoming a singer, sending her son Hedley back to Pittsburgh to be raised by her sister Louise. It is this son, King Hedley II (Harry Lennix), whose story is told.
Fresh from a seven-year prison term for murdering a man who scarred his face Hedley is determined to go straight. His wife Tonya (Mone Walton) rebukes him for still being in love with the dead sweetheart who betrayed him. The couple live with Ruby (Juanita Jennings), who is visited by Elmore (Charles Brown), a mysterious gambler in a white suit, whom Hedley adores as a father figure, perhaps hoping he really is his father.
Hedley's boyhood friend Mister (Monte Russell) keeps insisting on taking his share out of the pot that the two are saving to buy a video store. In desperation, Hedley plans a robbery to get the needed money. Guns are brandished and the play winds to a violent and melodramatic climax when Elmore reveals the truth about Hedley's father and an accidental shooting results in another death.
The final speech is given by Stool Pigeon (Lou Myers), a crazed old neighbor who is obsessed by God and dogs. It's not revealed whether the fact that God spells dogbackwards has something to do with that though with Wilson this is very possible. The character's reversals include treating the dogs with reverence and blaspheming about God.
At three-and-a-half hours, this play could certainly use the shaping it will undoubtedly get before going east to Chicago and eventually New York. (Fences, in its first staged reading at the O'Neill, ran four hours.)
The cast is outstanding, especially Brown, Myers and Lennix. Director Marion McClinton has the same feel for the pace, inner life and tempo of Wilson's writing noted in Jitney which he directed for the Taper last year. (and reviewed by CurtainUp in New York ).
Plot has never been where Wilson started. He says his characters come up to him and tell their stories and nobody can dispute the reality of these people and the dimensions of the world he creates. The richness and complexity of his writing lies in his use of the African griot story-telling technique. Each character tells not only his own story, but those he's heard. The historic, political, and cultural life of each decade is reflected in the everyday lives of those whom it affects most: the underprivileged dreamers whose upwardly mobile strivings are decimated by the rage and violence in their community.
Much of the dialogue echoes the playwright's preoccupation with the African "song" which he means not just literally but as a figurative example of the culture and character of his race. It's no accident that his speech has a poetic beat and that his monologues sound like arias and some of his dialogue like duets. A specific example in the exchange between Hedley and Elmore about Hedley's being scarred and the defilement of blood being shed is the repetition of the word "blood" at the end of each line. They focus on the concept of honor and of what it means to be a man, expressing their disgust in the escalating 1980s senselessness of random drive-by shootings.
The only optimistic note Wilson leaves us is that he still has a decade left to write about. But before we see that, he's taking us back to where the 20th century began with a play set in 1904. As you see these plays in their overall scope, some stronger than others, the pattern that emerges becomes ever more remarkable. The whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.