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A CurtainUp Review
King Hedley II

Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamp down low! We in trouble now! Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died! — Stool Pidgeon
Linda Gravatt as Ruby and Russell Hornsby as King
Linda Gravatt as Ruby and Russell Hornsby as King in King HedleyII at Signature Theatre Company
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Signature Theatre Company is concluding its eminently rewarding retrospective of plays by the late playwright August Wilson with King Hedley II. It once again returns us to the economically anemic black ghetto Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that is now so familiar to us. The time is 1980. Aunt Ester dies at the ripe old age of 366. Her black cat isn't long for this world either. Forty years have passed since the action in Seven Guitars and Ruby, a key character lives on.

Fraught with melodramatic situations, metaphysical implications, and mystical intimations King Hedley II is an often mystifying mix of symbolism and realism. At the same time, it offers a powerfully reflective theatrical experience.

The play is rather fresh in our memory as it was seen on Broadway in 2001. For the Signature production, David Gallo, who also created the setting for that Broadway production, has designed a stunningly impressionistic set. It is especially notable for its backdrop, a huge fractured disintegrating billboard that gives the impression of a collage. In the backyard of his family's home ex-convict (seven years for murder two) King, played by muscular and comely Russell Hornsby, is hatching up a get-some-quick-cash scheme. The idea is to sell stolen refrigerators which he didn't actually steal but is just sellingwith Mister (Curtis McClarin), his antsy partner-in-crime and brother-in-law. King's desperation to get cash is partly motivated by his need to provide for his unhappy and pregnant wife Tonya (Cherise Boothe), but more by his gnawing need to elevate himself from the hopelessness of his despairing environment. Convincing themselves that a little armed-robbery of a local jewelry store on the side will not hurt, King and Mister hope to use the money to open their own small business, a video store.

Casting another shadow upon King's real agonies and unrealistic expectations is his ex-singer mother Ruby (Lynda Gravatt), a survivor of unstable and unscrupulous men whose current, or rather recurrent, old flame and professional swindler Elmore (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is back to cause chaos in her life. That he also, in a fit of pique, is pressed to expose some ugly truths about Ruby's past and King's legitimacy adds more tension and grounds for violence into the lives of this splintered family. Henderson is no stranger to the Wilson legacy, having appeared in the 1993 revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, as well as in Jitney. It isn't surprising that he instigates a good deal of the play's excitement and tension as the manipulative and conniving Elmore.

Thrown into the sordid reality is Stool Pigeon (Lou Myers), the nut case of a neighbor. This ranting, apocalypse-prophesizing old gent recites stretches of the old testament to explain the plight and the turbulent legacy of the black race , as the plot churns toward its tragic end. Myers, who was in the original production of The Piano Lesson, makes his prophesizing pronouncements with a decidedly more lucid edge than Henderson who played Stool Pidgeon in the original Broadway production.

As Tonya, Boothe makes the most of her big emotional scene in which she makes it clear to King that she doesn't want the baby that she is carrying to become more fodder for violence and despair. Hornsby, who was memorable in Jitney and in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel, stirs up enough of King's rage, but he is most effective conveying the character's ultimate helplessness.

Linda Gravatt, who was a stand-bye for Leslie Uggams in the original Broadway production, , is terrific as Ruby, the mother whose secrets are as guarded as her affections. There is a slyly insinuating subtext to her performance that surfaces with a welcomed and amusing sensuality, especially in one scene as she stands at the back door of the house and beckons to Elmore, "C'mon in the house, I'll fry you some chicken."

Under Derrick Sanders's admirably committed direction, this play still progresses slowly and a bit tenuously over three hours. Its abrupt and hard-to-swallow conclusion doesn't help. However, despite the forced resolution , the six emotionally entwined characters manage to keep us in their thrall. It's not a revelation that Wilson's dialogue, more often than not resonates like a lyrical aria.

King Hedley II may not represent the peak of the canon, and may actually be the most disheartening. But it, nevertheless, has the incontestable force and drive of a master dramatist. This may be all we need to know, as we look forward to Wilson's final play Radio Golf due on Broadway this April.

Fences, Pasadena Playhouse
Gem of the Ocean, LA & NY
Gem of the Ocean, London
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Los Angeles
King Hedley II, LA (LA)
King Hedley II, Broadway)
King Hedley II, London
King Hedley II, Philadelphia
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Two Trains Running
Radio Golf, LA

King Hedley II
By August Wilson
Directed by Derrick Sanders

Cast: Lou Myers, Russell Hornsby, Lynda Gravatt, Curtis McClarin, Cherise Boothe, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Set Design: David Gallo
Costume Design: Reggie Ray
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Sound Design: Jill BC Duboff
Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 3 hours including intermission
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd Street
From 2/20/07 to 4/15/07; opening 3/11/07
Tuesdays at 7 PM; Wednesdays — Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 2 PM and 8 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM and 7 PM. Post performance talkbacks are March 13, 20, 27 and April 10.
All tickets for the scheduled 8 week run are $15.
Review by Simon Saltzman on March 7, 2007
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