Where: Court Theatre,
5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through Oct. 13
By ANNE SPISELMAN
After seeing director Ron OJ Parson’s revelatory take on August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at Court Theatre last season, I was hopeful that he would bring the same brilliance to bear on “King Hedley II,” never one of my favorite Wilson plays, though others have hailed it as a masterpiece.
The good news is that Parson’s production is topnotch, thanks not only to his well-paced direction but also to an outstanding cast and terrific design. The not-so-good news is that the ninth work in Wilson’s American Century Cycle illuminating the African American experience in the 20th century decade by decade still isn’t near the top of my list.
Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1985, at the height of the Reagan era, “Hedley” focuses on the title character’s (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) efforts to put his life back together after seven years in prison for a murder he definitely did commit. He comes back to the home where he was raised by the recently deceased Louise, and where his mother, Ruby (TayLar), has also returned. But everything seems to be stacked against him.
He can’t find a job, so he and his friend Mister (Ronald L. Conner) turn to questionable pursuits like robbery and selling hot refrigerators to get money to open a video store. His long-suffering wife, Tonya (Kierra Bunch), is pregnant at 35 but doesn’t want to be, especially since she’s about to become a grandmother. Elmore (A.C. Smith), a hustler and Ruby’s former suitor, who also spent time in prison for murder, shows up unexpectedly, adding to the tension. Even Hedley’s simple attempt to plant some seeds in seemingly barren dirt is stymied.
Racism and gun violence have become so rampant that not only Hedley, but several others, are packing heat—and we know that at least one person is going to get shot, just not who or when. Civility in the community has broken down completely, and Aunt Ester, the mystical spiritual leader, has finally died at the age of 366. So has her cat, who is buried in the yard by Stool Pigeon (Dexter Zollicoffer), the dotty old man who lives next door and utters prophecies of doom—often ending with “God is a bad muthafucka” – including directly to the audience at the beginning (amid an ominous thunderstorm) and end of the evening.
Clocking in at almost 3 hours, the drama consists mostly of characters talking in the backyard. Hedley and Mister rehash the past and hatch their schemes. Elmore and Hedley try to hustle each other in a dice game. Elmore woos Ruby. She gives both him and Hedley pieces of her mind. Tonya has a stunning monologue about why she’s unwilling to bring another child into this world. And over and over, an increasingly frustrated and enraged Hedley rails against the hand he’s been dealt in life.
One problem is that our understanding of the play depends at least partly on our knowledge of previous plays in the cycle, especially “Seven Guitars.” Several of the same characters or their parents and relatives show up there, and even though much of the information is repeated, it doesn’t have the same impact as if we actually remember the context. This is especially true of the circumstances surrounding Hedley’s view of Ruby and the big reveal that precipitates the tragic climax. In addition, knowing something about the history of Aunt Ester gives both real and symbolic meaning to her loss.
While Wilson sometimes is compared to Shakespeare, I’m inclined to think of “King Hedley II” as more akin to Greek tragedy, with Stool Pigeon as the chorus. The style certainly is not realistic, and Hedley has a tragic flaw. He thinks that the world should behave as he wants it to and gets bent out of shape when it doesn’t. As portrayed by Roston, he’s a complicated man desperate to control his little circle of this earth, whose bravura masks insecurity and whose insistence that he’s not sorry for what he’s done hides a sense of guilt.
The rest of the performances are equally good, and Parson helps the actors forge strong connections among the characters, sometimes injecting much-needed humor. The way Roston’s Hedley and Smith’s Elmore try to con each other over the sale of a refrigerator or roll of the dice is one example, as is the intricate flirtation between Smith’s Elmore and TayLar’s spirited Ruby.
Regina Garcia’s stunning scenic design features very different back porches—Stool Pigeon’s is on several levels cluttered with newspapers and junk; Ruby’s is neater – set at angles to each other, flanking an industrial backdrop. Mike Durst’s lighting and Christopher M. La Porte’s sound design combine to create a prophetically frightening thunderstorm. Alexia Rutherford’s costumes capture the characters and the period nicely.
Although the two women in “King Hedley II” are forces to be reckoned with, I suspect this is more of a man’s play. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t really speak to me like some of Wilson’s others.