To witness one of the most powerful theatrical productions in the entire city, walk a few blocks West of Times Square on 42nd Street to the Signature Theatre Company and pay $15 for a ticket to King Hedley II, the final installment of the Signature’s 2006/2007 tribute to the late playwright August Wilson. Earlier this season the Signature scored impressively with their staging of Wilson’s Seven Guitars and Two Trains Running. The company had long planned a Wilson season, but when the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright died on October 2, 2005 that season took on greater significance.
Set during the 1980’s in a backyard of the decaying Hill District, a Pittsburgh inner city ghetto, the tragedy follows the characters Wilson created in Seven Guitars, but almost 40 years later. The central character, King (Russell Hornsby), is returning home after serving a 7 year prison term for second degree murder. His father was killed in Seven Guitars and his mother Ruby (Lynda Gravatt), a former band singer, is burdened by a secret she has kept for the past 36 years. King has a dream of getting enough money to open his own business, a video store, and to that end is selling stolen refrigerators with his partner in crime, his brother-in-law Mister (Curtis McClarin). The two have even concocted a scheme to rob a nearby jewelry store in hopes of getting some fast cash.
After his return King’s wife Tonya (Cherise Boothe) becomes pregnant with his child, but is determined, against his wishes, to have an abortion. She believes the child’s father could be back in prison at any moment and sees no future in bringing another life into her bleak existence.
One of Ruby’s former suitors, Elmore (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a devious rogue, has returned from a 5 year prison stint and is intent on wooing her again even though he killed her husband Leroy many years earlier. Living in the house next door is a ranting old man called Stool Pigeon (Lou Myers), who functions as a modern day Greek Chorus commenting on the action and echoing one of the play’s central themes, “God, you’re a bad Mother F*****.”
Part of Wilson’s renowned 10 play series that chronicles the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century, King Hedley II bowed on Broadway six years ago in 2001, and although the play is not considered his finest, the playwright’s language is mesmerizing. Hedley contains some of Wilson’s most passionate speeches overflowing with recriminations steeped in sorrow from the past and fear of the future. The play about despair is imbued with symbolism and paints a grim picture of the African-American experience in the 1980’s, when it was most inevitable that the improvised black man would not rise above his harsh environment.
The performances from the ensemble of actors smolders with intensity, but Stephen McKinley Henderson, who is a master at interpreting Wilson characters (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Jitney) and who played the smaller role of Stool Pigeon in the Broadway production is a stand out. His work is beautifully nuanced and his Elmore is a devilishly amusing cad possessed with a constant twinkle in his eye that conceals a manipulative, even brutal core.
The direction of the revival by Derrick Sanders builds slowly and steadily over almost three hours to its fierce conclusion, but the play has limitations that the forceful performances, cannot atone. There is a melodramatic quality to the unfolding events and disconnectedness to the characters that the actors cannot overcome, however the evening remains immensely engaging with a haunting message that is potent indeed.
Radio Golf set in the 1990’s, the final chapter of the Wilson series and his last play, opens next month on Broadway at the Court Theater, but in the meantime be thrilled by the best theatrical bargain in town – King Hedley II.
…gordin & christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
King Hedley II is now playing at Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, through April 22, 2007. For tickets call 212-244-PLAY or visit HYPERLINK "http://www.signaturetheatre.org" www.signaturetheatre.org