By any standard but the playwright’s own, August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” would probably rank as an impressive accomplishment. There are passages in the play that positively throb with lyrical heat, gorgeous monologues in which this immensely gifted writer once again turns blunt vernacular language into pulsating poetry. There are also electrifying moments in which the play’s bruised characters batter against destiny and each other with aching intensity.
But Wilson has set the bar very high in the previous installments of his 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, and the sad truth is that “King Hedley II” is a disappointing entry in this ongoing literary landmark. In collaboration with director Marion McClinton, supplanting the playwright’s longtime associate Lloyd Richards, Wilson has been refining the play for more than a year, as it has traveled around the country visiting various regional theaters. But while the running time has been reduced — cut from about three and a half to three hours — the play remains unfocused and diffuse, too discursive even for this usually most entertainingly discursive writer.
Significantly, this is the first play in the cycle that does not feel strongly informed by the specifics of its time. The year is 1985, and the setting is the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where most of Wilson’s prior plays have been set. But aside from a preponderance of guns and references to contemporary urban symbols like video stores, the world of “King Hedley” feels insular, timeless and unmoored from the real currents of the era — a notable flaw, since one of Wilson’s aims has been to depict the changing contours of black experience across the century.
Speeches about drive-by shootings and similarly time-specific issues come across as strained attempts at topicality arriving like telegrams from another world rather than organic expressions of the characters’ experience. It’s telling that the audience hears pop songs by Michael Jackson and the Commodores as it is taking its seats, but the music in the play is strictly retro: jazzy blues and even a waltz.
Much of the play is taken up with discussions of past history, as if Wilson was more comfortable returning to ancient grudges and familiar themes rather than moving into new territory. Certainly one of Wilson’s major aims is to depict how legacies of abandonment and frustration are transmitted like a blighting genetic disorder down through generations. He is also obliquely illustrating how the disenfranchisement of African-Americans continued into the Reagan ’80s. But too much of “King Hedley” seems like a recycling of ideas better explored in prior plays.
The title character, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, is an ex-con struggling, as so many characters in Wilson plays do, to put a checkered past behind him and move toward the brighter future that haunts his dreams. He’s named after a character in Wilson’s prior play “Seven Guitars,” and history depicted in and referred to in that work figures strongly in the new play (a real problem for those not familiar with it).
Hedley was abandoned for many years by his mother Ruby (Leslie Uggams), who has now returned to Pittsburgh following the death of Louise, the woman who raised Hedley. Also living in the same dilapidated row house with Hedley is his new wife Tonya (Viola Davis), while the shack next door is home to Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a “Seven Guitars” holdover who has now been infected by a religious mania similar to that of Hedley’s namesake in the prior play. (His mantra, which provides several of the play’s many pungent laughs, is “God’s a bad motherf—–!”)
Visitors to this blighted homestead are Hedley’s associate Mister (Monte Russell), a partner in both a planned video store and casual crime, and Ruby’s ex-flame Elmore (Charles Brown), who intends to finally settle down with Ruby but also — somewhat inexplicably — is determined to tell Hedley the secret truth about his ancestry.
Wilson’s plays have always been driven by character rather than circumstance, but in the best of them a character’s conflict with his circumstances provides a potent dramatic thrust. Here the connections between Hedley and his destiny never come together cogently: The tragic finale the play finally arrives at feels strenuously manufactured rather than ineluctably shaped by events in the play. Nor are the characters, for the most part, as distinctive as in the best of Wilson’s plays.
Still, many individual scenes in the play catch fire, kindled by the rich contours of Wilson’s beautifully shaped dialogue. Fire is just the word for Davis’ performance as Tonya, the standout of the production. This vibrant actress brings an electrifying edge to her role, and Tonya’s defiant speech about her decision to abort Hedley’s child is perhaps the most anguished and beautifully realized moment in the play. This subplot inspires a matching peak from Mitchell’s Hedley, who describes just how much bringing a child into the world means to a man who has made a mess of his own life.
But the central character (and by extension the play) becomes blurry under the burden of too many legacies, too many grudges and too many big dreams. Hedley has got three economic enterprises afoot, for starters, not to mention a somewhat heavily symbolic horticultural one.
Best known for his work in musicals, Mitchell is an undeniably charismatic performer, and his lush baritone lends its own, aptly operatic sheen to Wilson’s language. But while the actor effectively uses a wide-legged stance and a wild-eyed look to denote Hedley’s alternately truculent and terrified wrestling with the forces marshaled against him — and he has a natural imperiousness that’s apt for this proud character — the performance (or is it the character?) never comes into sharp focus.
Uggams seems similarly miscast as the sassy Ruby — she’s a naturally refined and self-contained actress trying to play a woman of altogether another type. Henderson and particularly Brown are excellent in supporting roles, with Brown’s smooth-operating Elmore providing much of the play’s comic relief as he wheels and deals his way around this small, circular economic community.
Newcomers to Wilson’s commanding authorial voice and distinctive style will find the play rewarding, both for its undeniable lyrical power and the sympathetic attention it gives to a stratum of American society virtually absent from Broadway in between Wilson’s regular tenancy here. But admirers of this major American artist’s writing can only hope that any future collaborations with McClinton, who also directed the acclaimed production of Wilson’s “Jitney” last season, will be as rewarding as the best of Wilson’s achievements in concert with Richards.