Arena’s new ‘King Hedley II’: In 2015, the past is prologue

Arena’s new ‘King Hedley II’: In 2015, the past is prologue

American genius-playwright August Wilson’s 1980s drama may be his least highly regarded. But in 2015, it likely has the most to say to us all.

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Cast of "King Hedley II." L-R: Jessica Frances Dukes (Tonya), Kenyatta Rogers (Mister), King (Bowman Wright), Ruby (E. Faye Butler), Elmore (Michael Anthony Williams), and Stool Pigeon (André De Shields). Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2015 – Tough, relentless—and lengthy—August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” didn’t exactly set New York’s always-fussy critics on fire when it opened on Broadway in 2001. “To long,” “too confusing,” “too much talking” was the verdict then.

While “King Hedley” may indeed be a trifle too long—a few minutes of its second act could be condensed without damage—the rest of the play packs a powerful punch, particularly when you consider that this nation’s under-privileged demographic has grown dramatically in this century rather than shrinking as one might have expected.

Whether or not this insight was part of director Timothy Douglas vision for the new Arena Stage production of this play, this chilling contemporary parallel was easy to spot on opening night.

Set in the mid-1980s in Pittsburgh’s hardscrabble Hill District neighborhood—the home base of August Wilson’s youth—“King Hedley II” is the second to the last of this iconic playwright’s massive ten-play cycle chronicling the 20th century African-American experience as it unfolded in this declining Rust Belt city.

Although the play failed to cop a Pulitzer, the production still proved to be a crowning achievement in 1999 when its premiere ushered in the opening of the Public Theater in Pittsburgh, an event capped by Wilson’s triumphant return to his home town.

Wilson’s play is a damning statement on the value of black life in urban America and the role that prison plays in the lives of black men as a virtual right-of-passage. The vicious cycle of senseless gun trafficking, darkly concealed family secrets and the inevitable hair-trigger response to any perceived act of disrespect are the unfortunate currencies upon which “King Hedley II” is built.

Appropriately, the drama’s central character, “King” Hedley the Second (Bowman Wright), is haunted by his prominent facial scar—a permanent souvenir dished out by a street nemesis he’d been trying to make peace with.

Avenging that attack ultimately resulted in a seven-year sentence in a Pennsylvania penitentiary, permanently altering King’s attitude toward the people and the world around him. King’s scar becomes the driving force that leads this drama inexorably toward its violent and tragic conclusion.

The most dapper bad guy you'll ever want to meet. Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore in King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 6-March 8, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The most dapper bad guy you’ll ever want to meet. Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore in King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 6-March 8, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Paralleling King’s experience, the older, smoother and considerably more dapper operator Elmore (Michael Anthony Williams) had earlier in life received a similar sentence in Alabama for killing a romantic rival—a murder he has come to regret years later.

Even so, that incident ultimately failed to deter him from carrying on the street tradition of wheeling and dealing in the underground economy of gambling, guns and stolen goods. Carrying a pair of dark secrets with him, he returns to town looking to rekindle an old relationship with King’s mother

Rounding out Wilson’s cast of deeply interesting characters are his tough-as-nails mother Ruby (E. Faye Butler); his best pal Mister (Kenyatta Rogers); his fearful second wife Tonya (Jessica Frances Dukes); and Wilson’s answer to “King Lear’s” wise Fool, a peculiar newspaper hoarder and Bible-quoting neighborhood character who answers to the moniker “Stool Pigeon” (André Shields).

Every young black man who grew up in urban settings like Pittsburgh in the 1980s knew and likely still knows his share of Hedleys, Elmores and Misters. This makes it easy to relate to the persistent street culture, the endless loop of violence, desperate survival and pathos that almost inevitably breaks a man’s spirit and destroys his dreams and his family.

Staged in Arena’s theater-in-the-round Fichandler, the current production of Wilson’s play is unsparing in its relentless grimness. Set designer Tony Cisek gets right down to the urban core of a dying industrial city with his starkly simple setting, a moonscape of graying broken concrete and unused cinder blocks: an avenue of broken dreams. It’s everywhere and nowhere, an urban excuse for a backyard patio with a small, broken gravel patch that King tries to turn into a little garden for his plants and for his dream of going into business for himself.

But, as in the Parable of the Sower his efforts to grow something new and different are clearly doomed because his seeds are planted among concrete and stones. This pathetic garden patch serves as the central metaphor for the entire play, a place where hope and life begin and end.

Like all the plays in Wilson’s epic cycle, “King Hedley II” is a “talky” play whose minimalist plot grows in part out of this central concept. But even more, the dramatic message and structure grow out of the thoughts and words of Wilson’s immensely complicated and human characters, making all that talk the central element of interest, since, by listening carefully, we can learn.

It is in the talk that Wilson truly excels. He is the American George Bernard Shaw, another world-class playwright whose polemical explorations, woven throughout the give and take of tremendously interesting dialogue serve to make his characters and their ideas far more important than the plot itself.

As in the plays of Shaw, actors taking on the challenging roles in Wilson’s plays must first memorize prodigious amounts of very precisely written dialogue. Once that’s accomplished, an even more daunting task remains: getting inside each character’s head and becoming one with either him or her while internalizing the zeitgeist of each specific decade in Wilson’s century-long magnum opus, in this case, the 1980s.

Arena is fortunate indeed to have brought in a cast that’s able to do it all. While a few lines were muffed on opening night, these proved a minor inconvenience. Each member of this cast time-traveled to 1980s Pittsburgh, transforming those words in Wilson’s script into living, breathing characters that brought home the reality of a specific time and place.

As King Hedley, the Second Coming, Bowman Wright brilliantly inhabits his complex character, a seething cauldron of pride, resentment, dedication and—amazingly—deep and abiding love and respect for family. Trapped in an urban box not of his making, he strives mightily to transcend his environment, even though he lacks the essential tools to accomplish his task. His energy, resentment and rage—frequently held in check by love and hope—drives this play relentlessly towards its inevitable end.

As Elmore, King’s older, cooler, colder, more dapper and more experienced antagonist, Michael Anthony Williams serves as the younger man’s perfect foil. Elmore is in many ways a despicable character. But he’s a survivor in territory as many like him are not. He’s learned to exploit the way of the world not by giving vent to his inner demons, but by cynically playing his never-ending con-game 24/7, almost inevitably snaring the unwary.

We’re not sure what to make of Williams’ Elmore in the beginning. But as we eventually learn, he’s Satan in a natty, tasteful suit, the neighborhood devil who, having lived in exile, has now returned home for his final act. It’s a memorable performance.

While much of this play focuses on the slow dance between King and Elmore, the remaining characters provide key insight and support.

Extra praise goes to E. Faye Butler for her soulful performance as Ruby, King’s mother, a character carried over from “Seven Guitars.” That earlier Wilson portrait of 1940s death and family pain serves to bridge the generational gap of 40 years, introducing a seductive Ruby as well as the original King Hedley. Butler’s current 1980s Ruby has concealed much of her early dark past. Her horror as those details begin to surface puts a very different angle on current events.

Mister and King in "King Hedley II."
(L to R) KenYatta Rogers as best-friend Mister and Bowman Wright as King in King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 6-March 8, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In a strong supporting performance, Kenyatta Rogers’ Mister is the kind of friend we all wish we could have. As King’s loyal sidekick, Mister would die for his friend if he had to. But he also tries to keep King’s rage and idealism within realistic bounds while helping with creative solutions to remedy the pair’s chronic capital deficit.

In the smaller but still key role of Tonya, King’s much-aggrieved spouse, E. Faye Butler’s sympathetic portrayal not only adds a necessary dose of humanity to the play. She also articulates the unique tragedy and fear of all too many inner-city African-American women; namely, the almost inevitable absence of an adult male figure in an urban household.

This fate has befallen Tonya—already a grandmother at 35, thanks in many ways to absent husband number one. When she discovers she’s pregnant, her fears burst forth anew. She’s not eager for King to go a round with that same malign fate himself. Her anguish at the very possibility of another bad outcome is another major element in the urban web that Wilson weaves

Finally, we have André De Shields. His outstanding performance as Stool Pigeon—the “King Hedley” edition of the mystic soothsayer-chorus that is a mainstay in Wilson’s dramatic works—provides not only comic relief.

Stool Pigeon’s deeply-held, if erratic, spiritual beliefs, plus his primitive understanding that only a knowledge of the real world can set you free, transforms him into an eerie parody of Cassandra, the prophetess who accurately predicts the future but whose prophecies no one believes. It’s a wonderful portrayal, moving, colorful and funny all at the same time.

A final note, and one that makes this production extraordinarily poignant in an unexpected way: “King Hedley II’s” central dilemma revolves around the way that “the system” and “the man” gang up together to keep the African-American cellar-dwellers of America’s inner cities inside a tight, leaden box where all hope and all aspirations inevitably come to naught.

The characters in this play, as well as others in Wilson’s ten-play cycle, struggle with the dead-end that American society seems to have imposed on them.

Sadly, as one observes the ceaseless and largely useless struggles of Wilson’s characters in “King Hedley,” one gets a sinking feeling that, in 2015, more Americans than ever before have joined the likes of Wilson’s characters in that same, doorless box, courtesy a government that, through its immigration and other policies, seems to have permanently turned a deaf ear on its citizens’ basic need for a job and for a future.

America’s have-nots are increasing, not shrinking, as greater and greater wealth goes to fewer and fewer individuals. At what point does the system fall apart? The answer to the question that “King Hedley II” and Wilson’s other plays pose was elusive when he wrote them. It seems even more elusive today.

But that’s the sort of path your mind invariably takes when you watch a provocative play like this one. “King Hedley II” probably has more to say to us today than when it was originally produced. And that’s what makes this superb Arena Stage production a must-see event.

Malcolm Lewis Barnes contributed to this review

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with a fairly short intermission.

August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” continues through March 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington, D.C.

Tickets and Information: Ticket prices range from $45-90. For tickets and information, call 202-488-3300, or visit the Arena Stage website.

Getting there: Limited valet parking is available at the Arena Stage facility. Parking in the nearby neighborhood is a sometime thing. Often the best bet is to take the Metro. The Waterfront station on the Green Line is just two urban blocks from the theater.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17