BWW Review: One Down Nine to Go: KING HEDLEY II Kicks off Television Actress' Pledge to Stage All 10 August Wilson Century Cycle Plays in LA.
A little bit of King Hedley's ambition might have rubbed off on television actress turned theatrical producer Sophina Brown. Better known as Nikki Betancourt from CBS's hit NUMB3RS, Brown has delved into the Los Angeles 99-seat theatre scene with the goal of producing all ten of August Wilson's plays in the Century Cycle. First up -- KING HEDLEY II, which opened last Thursday at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood.
August Wilson's Century Cycle (sometimes also called the Pittsburgh Cycle), is a series of ten plays that chronicles the African-American experience in America, with each play taking place in a different decade. Each piece follows a standalone story, with characters and minor story arches occasionally bleeding through from play-to-play.
KING HEDLEY II is the ninth play in the cycle, and is set in urban Pittsburgh during the 1980's. A few characters reappear from the cycle's fifth play, SEVEN GUITARS, which was set in the 1940's. While you don't need to have seen any other play in the cycle to understand KING HEDLEY, the piece does assume a pinch of existing knowledge of SEVEN GUITARS. In fact, some productions actually feature both plays together. But, this is likely a moot point unless you're about to search for a local production of SEVEN GUITARS to see before running to the Matrix. I digress...
The story follows King Hedley (Esau Pritchett), an ex-con who was just released from a 7 year prison sentence for murdering the man who called him a name and slashed his face with a razor. We learn that Hedley is full of ambition, but doesn't quite know how to live a life that allows him to achieve his dreams while living in conformity with society's "rules" (ie. The Penal Code). He winds up selling stolen refrigerators with his friend, Mister (Jon Chaffin), in hopes of saving up enough money to buy a video rental store. Of course, things don't work out well in the crime-ridden ghetto Hedley knows as his home. Hedley quickly discovers he's destined for failure; it's written in the stars.
How Was It?
Sophina Brown made an interesting choice starting her Cycle tour with KING HEDLEY II. Out of the ten plays in the Century Cycle, this is one of the least well known. It is also, in my humble opinion, Wilson's least focused story in the series. The entire play can easily come across as a three-hour long lull when not staged right. Luckily, Brown's team fully realized the epic potential in this piece.
I was shocked at the quality of the set design, by John Iacovelli. I mean absolutely no disrespect to the wonderful performers, but the set design probably encompassed thirty percent of my enjoyment of this production. Usually in 99-seat venues, I expect to see a few acting blocks, a chair or two, a couch, and maybe a door-frame with no wall. The director of these bare plays usually explains away the lack of set as an intentional "minimalist" artistic approach rather than the reality (which is usually they didn't have enough money to build a proper set). Here it was obvious no expense was spared. The scenery looked more like you would expect to see on a film or TV set. The attention to detail made it really easy to get immersed into the story.
The cast was amazing. Esau Pritchett (King Hedley) embodies scary. Pictures don't do him justice -- when he's in the room he sucks the attention like a vacuum cleaner. The way he walks and talks, you know what he's saying is serious. He could be reciting his grocery list and you would feel sorry for the next guy to cross him. He has a weight about him that just forces you to pay attention. He owns the room without even trying.
The entire cast was made up of established television actors. The charming and likeable Jon Chaffin (Mister) was a perfect pick to play Hedley's polite and goodhearted partner in crime. Ella Joyce (Ruby) played Hedley's caring mom (and moral compass) with grace and naturalism. Ciera Payton (Tonya) captivated the audience during her exceptionally strong monologues as Hedley's world-weary wife. Adolphus Ward (Stool Pigeon) made the audience laugh and cry as a prophetic, yet crazy, old man. And Montae Russell (Elmore) did a great job playing a sleazeball (it's a compliment, I swear).
The entire production was pulled together by the outstanding direction of Michele Shay. KING HEDLEY II's script is not known to be Wilson's best writing. At times the dialogue can seem aimless, the story weak, and characters sometimes stop being "characters" and turn into August Wilson lecturing the audience, like a parasite, through his actor hosts. Shay's direction was able to mitigate a lot of these extended lulls that permeates throughout the script, and give motivation when the high school dropout characters randomly start espousing their eloquent observations about the world.
In short, this was the best performance of KING HEDLEY II I have ever seen. Granted, I only saw two live performances of this before, and both were awful. I am curious to see what Sophina Brown has in store for the remaining nine plays in the cycle. If she was able to take one of my least favorite plays in the series and turn it into something I enjoyed, I can't wait to see what she does with Ma Rainey or FENCES.
How to See It
Sophina Brown's production of KING HEDLEY runs through February 12 at the Matrix Theatre.
Tickets for are available here, or by calling 1- 800-838-3006 Ext. 1.
Price: $35 (group rates available). The Matrix Theatre is located at 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046.
More Pretty Pictures:
Photo Credits: The Production, no name given.