When it opened on Broadway six years ago, I wrote of August Wilson’s King Hedley II that it was a mighty and messy and frightening achievement. Its power resides in ecstatic visions and parables that pour from the gut of a disenfranchised people; its howl of black grief and chronicles of death foretold are terrible to witness.
Wilson’s great plays are surely without equal in our time. The staggering King Hedley II—the ninth in his magnificent 10-play cycle of African-American life—has now been excellently revived by the Signature Theatre Company, and it still frightens me. The concluding scene of accidental murder and messianic biblical incantation leaves us devastated and helpless, as if we were watching ritual human sacrifice.
Even so, it’s important to stress that Wilson’s plays invariably brim with good humor and that King Hedley II is no exception. The vitality of his characters is irresistible: They make us laugh even as they drown in sorrow. Wilson is a playwright drunk on the glory of words, and stories that ring true are his strength. (All his characters are storytellers of their own lives.) His epic plays give unique voice to the voiceless. They are memory plays of so-called ordinary people making natural urban poetry.
“The people wandering all over the place,” says Stool Pigeon, an apparently insane soothsayer. “God’s a motherfucker!” Stool Pigeon (played by the tremendous Lou Myers) is the guardian of black history in the unlikely form of thousands and thousands of old newspapers that build a firetrap in his home. “They got lost,” he tells us about Wilson’s characters in the wasteland. “They don’t even know the story of how they got from tit to tat …. The story’s been written. All that’s left now is the playing out.”
It’s significant that the playwright’s mad mythical invention, 366-year-old Aunt Ester—former slave, healer of lost souls, keeper of all past knowledge—dies during King Hedley II. Ester dies of grief because no one’s listening any longer. To what, though? To the tragic fate of a people living an American Dream defiled, to certain songs none of us know how to sing.
KING HEDLEY II IS SET IN 1985, AMONG THE RUINS AND high crime of the impoverished Hill District ghetto of Pittsburgh (where Wilson grew up). It’s partly a blues lament about vengeance and the baring of souls, a myth that soars from the mundane to the mystically possessed, a grand opera that’s sometimes confused horribly with a soap opera. It’s a killing field, too, where the damned hero, King Hedley, was cut by a sneering pimp and jailed for seven years for murdering him in return. He dreams feverishly that he’s wearing an invisible halo, like a saint or black savior, and plants seeds to grow flowers for his pregnant wife in a kingdom of dirt.
There’s nothing ordinary (or small) about August Wilson! He can overwrite and he can repeat himself, but you march to his drumbeat, like Eugene O’Neill’s.
“Open your eyes and look,” says King Hedley—the killer and king in search of a role in the white man’s land. “That’s what’s wrong with niggers now. They can’t see their nose …. Everybody telling me I need some good dirt! This is good dirt! Look at that! This is good dirt! … Everybody better back the fuck off me! … Each and every one of you and I want you to hold me to it. When you see me coming, that’s who you better see. Now they done had World War I … and World War II … the next motherfucker that fucks with me it’s gonna be World War III.”
His pregnant wife, Tonya (played by Cherise Boothe, living on near-equal terms with the memory of Viola Davis in the original production), is already a grandmother at 35. Wilson wrote a long and scorching speech for her that gets our blood boiling. She’s telling King the reason why she’s aborted their unborn child:
“I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have his friends shoot him. To have the police shoot him. Why I want to bring another life into this world that don’t respect life? I don’t want to raise no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive.”
Hedley’s friend and business partner in crime is the dapper Mister (Curtis McClarin, another first-rate member of the cast), who’s selling stolen refrigerators to raise enough cash to open a video store specializing in kung fu movies. There’s also Hedley’s rejected mother Ruby, a former nightclub singer (played by Lynda Gravatt, who’s exactly right), and there’s her old flame now returned to the fold, the hustler in frayed elegance, Elmore, who was jailed for blowing a gambler’s face away. Wilson’s premier interpreter, the superlative Stephen McKinley Henderson, played Stool Pigeon in the Broadway production, and he’s effortlessly brilliant as Elmore here.
To see Mr. Henderson and Ms. Gravatt onstage together is to witness one of theater’s great treats. “You used to tell me I was pretty,” says Ruby.
“You still pretty,” Elmore replies. “You just got old. We both got old.”
And at that, Mr. Henderson held and kissed Ms. Gravatt and they both laughed, and we all laughed and could have kissed them both.
SIGNATURE’S SEASON OF AUGUST WILSON PLAYS (along with their policy of bargain ticket prices) is the best thing this Off Broadway theater and showcase of our great dramatists has ever done. Each of its three Wilson revivals has been of the highest order. Derrick Sanders’ new staging of King Hedley II, with set design by David Gallo and its particularly fine ensemble, is superior to the more starry Broadway production.
In many invaluable ways, it reclaims from Broadway an underestimated play. Brian Stokes Mitchell, for all his commitment and lyricism as the King Hedley, was a light heavyweight in a heavyweight role. In contrast, Mr. Hornsby’s galvanizing King possesses the right kind of scarred, righteous heft.
The glamorous but too refined Leslie Uggams also had her moments as Ruby, but Ms. Gravatt is better suited to play the lady with gray hair who waltzes in some timeless place, dancing alone in the dirt of Hill Street in a reverie of youthful love and infinite possibility.
And then comes the play’s shattering conclusion with its unbearably sad events, and the town soothsayer chanting ecstatically over the bloody body of the fallen King and potential redeemer in the land of plenty:
Our Bright and Morning Star!
I want your best!
See Him coming!
We give you our Glory.