The King Everyman of an America Abandoned

August Wilson’s King Hedley II is a mighty and messy and frightening achievement of the highest order. Its power resides in its ecstatic visions and poetry that pour from the gut of a disenfranchised people, in its mad percussion of pain and despair, in its gentle good humor and chronicles of deaths foretold.

It frightens me because its howl of black grief and loss is terrible to witness, and because I think this epic, feverish play and parable of Reagan’s America leaves its most distinguished dramatist alone. He is alone now. At 56, August Wilson is at the peak of his articulate power, and there is no one writing quite like him.

King Hedley is the latest of his epic plays that speak to us so forcibly of the black American experience in the 20th century. Decade by decade, this great, proud dramatist has chronicled the story in acclaimed dramas such as the Pulitzer Prize winners Fences and The Piano Lesson, as well as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Seven Guitars . But King Hedley alone hovers on the shaky brink of new, uncompromising discovery. It’s as if the very form of Mr. Wilson’s dramas is bursting open in his late plays into an alive, spontaneous impressionism. For who else writes of God and sorcery by combining the everyday life of an American tragedy with the death from grief of a 366-year-old Aunt Ester in whom all wisdom resides?

King Hedley is partly a symbolic myth, a bluesy lament, a Yoruba ritual, a grand opera which has been confused with a soap opera, an American Dream defiled, a killing field, madhouse or urban Greek tragedy. But Greek tragedies aren’t concerned with putting food on the table, or getting a job where none exist, or the wife who ran off with all the furniture, or scoring heroin, or playing by the white man’s rules. Mr. Wilson soars from the mundane to the mystically possessed and back again, like the madman in the play named Stool Pigeon spouting biblical incantations.

“I got to make it whatever way I can,” explains King Hedley, the king and killer and fallen one. “I ain’t bothering nobody. I got to feel right about myself. I look around and say ‘Where’s the barbed wire?’ They got everything else. They got me blocked in every other way. ‘Where the barbed wire?'”

King Hedley , directed by Marion McClinton, is set in the ruins of the Hill District ghetto, Pittsburgh, Pa., 1985. It’s about the Messianic title character (Brian Stokes Mitchell), who spent seven years in prison for killing a man who insulted him and cut him viciously on the face; King’s mother Ruby (Leslie Uggams), a former nightclub singer who lost the song; his proud wife Tonya (Viola Davis), who’s a grandmother at 35; his friend and partner, the dapper Mister (Monté Russell), with whom he’s selling hot refrigerators to raise enough cash to open a video store selling kung-fu movies; and Ruby’s former lover, the hustler in frayed elegance Elmore (Charles Brown), who was jailed for blowing a gambler’s face away. And there’s Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the neighborhood prophet of doom, who lives in a firetrap of newspapers piled to the ceiling. Keeping up with the news is his business.

“The people wandering all over the place,” Stool Pigeon tells us. “They got lost. 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.”

But there are stories within stories–about fate, vengeance and the bearing of souls, about fathers and sons and never making it. There are tales of blood feuds and guns, primal black manhood and a warrior class, a seed planted in dirt, invisible halos, the solace of sex with a stranger, the God-like decision of taking someone’s life–”God decide when somebody ready … God don’t like that you thinking you him”–or the unending grief of the mother of a murdered child among the dregs of the forgotten and damned of America.

In its ambitious, public way–in its sweep and gut– King Hedley inevitably makes the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning plays Proof and Dinner With Friends appear quite small and domestic, which is what they are. In his rich, wordy portraits of lives lived out and lost in desperation, August Wilson is drunk on the glory words, still stoned on them after all these years. He’s like a veteran fighter who’s always first out after the bell. Just when you think he’s on the ropes in King Hedley , when the muscle appears to slacken in the heat of battle, he comes out swinging.

Is there a more passionate actress anywhere than Viola Davis, who also touched us so deeply in Mr. Wilson’s Seven Guitars ? She and the magnificent Charles Brown as Elmore must surely take best-actor awards home this season by the sackful. But then, Mr. Wilson has written the scorching speech for Ms. Davis’ Tonya to get our blood boiling. She’s telling King why she’s aborted their child:

“I’m thirty-five years old. Don’t seem like there’s nothing left …. 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.”

Mr. Wilson is the griot of black America–and therefore of its historic oppressor, white America. I’ve written before that for me, it isn’t his poetic lyricism that touches us so much. It is the utterly unaffected humaneness at his core that makes his stories complete and universal. Some disagree, finding in King Hedley a naïve, heavy symbolism and repetitiveness bordering on melodrama. But exactly the same is said about the great epic dramas of Eugene O’Neill.

Without the dips and excesses, we don’t get the big, undiluted picture–as if Mr. Wilson had just spattered it with fresh blood. His blood. He writes emotionally, and emotion is never tidy.

Some also fault the dramatist for not setting the play specifically in the 1980’s. There’s little more to locate the period than some gangsta rap and a recording of President Reagan announcing it’s morning in America again. But a political overview isn’t Mr. Wilson’s intention, unlike that great epic of 80’s America, Angels in America . (“Children of the new morning, criminal minds. Selfish and greedy and loveless and blind. Reagan’s children.”) King Hedley could have taken place anytime, as it were. But could it? The Reagan years were among the most careless in our history. Mr. Wilson is more concerned with the symbolism of his black Everyman raised on the ashes of an anonymous, abandoned America.

At first I thought Brian Stokes Mitchell, for all his lyricism and commitment as King Hedley, a light heavyweight in a heavyweight role. Yet I remember him in his scarred, righteous ordinariness and ultimate martyrdom. The same proved uncannily true of the performance of Leslie Uggams, whom I felt for a while too refined for Ruby. Yet I vividly remember her during the action waltzing alone in a kind of timeless place, as if in a reverie of infinite possibility–and I actually dreamt of it, shuddering awake in the middle of the night with this memory of the elderly gray lady of the ghetto dancing carefree upon Mother Earth or the detritus of her own black history.

The play is deceptive that way, rolling over us in its apparent naïveté to its shattering conclusion of murder and ritual sacrifice. King Hedley is killed, for his death was pre-ordained. But August Wilson is implying a fantastic question as Stool Pigeon chants ecstatically over the dead body. Suppose the next Messiah were a black killer who was killed?

See him coming ! (the madman chants).

We give you our Glory .

We give you our Glory .

We give you our Glory .

The King Everyman of an America Abandoned