“King Hedley II” marks the eighth of August Wilson’s planned 10-play cycle about the black experience in each decade of the 20th century, and as the cycle reaches completion — only the two bookend decades remain to be depicted — it’s beginning to look more and more like a unified whole. Descendants of previous supporting characters are taking on lead roles, and a sense of a continuous, if always flickering, heritage or mythology is taking shape. At the very beginning of “King Hedley II,” set in Pittsburgh during the 1980s, we hear that Aunt Ester, the 366-year-old black woman we first heard about in “Two Trains Running,” has finally passed away, and her death hangs prominently over the entire play. For Wilson, apparently, the Reagan era was like an ongoing funeral, bleak and blood-soaked, representing the death throes of at least one strain of African-American life. “King Hedley” is by far the playwright’s darkest vision yet, and the most overwhelmingly influenced by classical tragedy.
The picture Wilson creates of ’80s urban America is desperate and hopeless. Everything is in ruins, even the buildings in the background of David Gallo’s impressive set. Crumbling bricks and fallen rafters hover over and encroach upon the playing space, which consists of a stage full of dirt in what was once the back yard of two still-standing but decrepit neighboring homes.
Even the quality of the dirt is questioned as King Hedley II (Harry Lennix), trying to rebuild his life after seven years in prison for murdering the man who scarred his face, plants a flower garden for his wife, Tonya. These budding growths, directly center stage, present a clear metaphor for the play’s central question: can this decaying world experience rebirth and regrowth, or will even the smallest inklings of a hopeful future be mercilessly quashed?
King finds himself pulled by myriad forces. Tonya (Moné Walton), who is pregnant, insists he go straight if she’s going to have the baby, which she doesn’t really want. But King seems unable to find a legitimate job. (In a clever ironic twist, Wilson places the only local, legal employment in the business of demolitions.) Mister (Monte Russell), King’s friend and partner in some shady refrigerator sales, wants to pull his share of cash from their combined savings, dashing King’s hopes of opening a store. King, meanwhile, can’t even pay his phone bill or give his mother Ruby (Juanita Jennings) extra money when she asks for it, which is often.
King feels so emasculated that even the smallest slight at a nearby Sears sends him into a fury at the end of the first act. It’s one of the most potent, and in some sense bravest, pieces of writing we’ve ever seen from Wilson, a no-holds-barred rendering of the archetypal “angry black man,” but raised to the larger-than-life scale of a true tragic figure, thus the Shakespearean moniker.
All of the character’s bitterness comes gushing out in this extraordinary tirade, which the Chicago-based actor Lennix delivers with unabashed honesty and a brilliantly rounded depth, both scary and sympathetic.
The supporting cast is equally superb under Marion McClinton’s direction, which balances nicely between the realistic and the oversized. In a charming performance, Lou Myers plays Stool Pigeon, a Bible-spouting eccentric neighbor who hordes newspapers, reading out headlines and insisting, “See. You got to know that!”, always with the utmost conviction.
As Elmore, Ruby’s longtime love interest and a perennial con man, Charles Brown bears a striking resemblance to playwright Wilson, and the actor brings a stately, easygoing manner to this crucial role, the keeper of a secret he feels obligated to reveal.
Almost all the performers have an opportunity to step forward and deliver a monologue that cuts to their character’s core. And while it’s great to see all the actors getting a chance to shine, there are too many of these soliloquies, and there are plenty of peripheral plot points that lead nowhere.
The play is bloated by at least a half hour, and the climax would be far more effective, and feel less over-controlled, if Wilson would remove all the non-essentials and fit the core components of his complex storytelling together with greater clarity and less clutter.
What is perhaps Wilson’s greatest achievement here is crafting a play that’s relentlessly downbeat in its tone and yet not a depressing experience. With some virtuoso writing, he does manage to raise this work to a grand level.
Like a Sophoclean tragedy, “King Hedley” is structured almost wholly upon the exposition of past events and the way in which they consistently reverberate in the present, creating a destiny that only an omniscient deity can reveal. There’s no escape.