Review: KING HEDLEY II at A Noise Within

Forget everyman "royal" tragedy plays out at A Noise Within

By: Apr. 19, 2024
Review: KING HEDLEY II at A Noise Within
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Sounding a drum, and promising fish heads to a hungry cat, Stool Pigeon, the grizzled neighborhood truthteller of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, greets us (in the person of actor Gerald Rivers) with a bit of wisdom. “You can’t play in the chord God ain’t wrote,” he says. “He wrote the beginning and the end. He let you play around in the middle but he got it all written down.”

And then, a few beats later, for emphasis. “The story’s been written. All that’s left now is the playing out.”

With that, we are welcomed into the realm of KING HEDLEY II, the ninth and quite possibly bleakest play of August Wilson’s Century Cycle. Pasadena’s A Noise Within is committed to producing the entire cycle, and ANW’s production, under the direction of frequent Wilson helmsman Gregg T. Daniel, wrestles with it valiantly. There are obvious reasons that HEDLEY is less often staged than the other entries in Wilson’s canon. So if a playgoer is looking to complete the cycle, here’s a rare opportunity to catch one of a master’s seldom-seen plays.

Know what’s in store. The play is long, bitter and peopled with characters who – for all their trampled upon dreams – are largely pretty unlikeable. Daniels clearly understands the nature of what he’s working with, and there’s nothing pretty or disingenuously uplifting about his production. Performers Aaron Jennings, Veralyn Jones, Christian Henley, Ben Cain, Kacie Rogers and Gerald Rivers display that same level of conviction. Rogers and Cain, in particular, are superb. 

Stool Pigeon is dead-on in his assessment. Many stories of Black people coming to and living – and dying - in America have been written, several of them by August Wilson himself. As anybody who has seen this author’s works knows by now, those tales – big and small - are recounted by Wilson’s characters in harmonious detail, whether from the stoops and patios of Hill district homes, recording studios, taxi companies or wherever these men and women happen to be found. God may have written the Book of Life; but it falls to Wilson’s men and women to peruse His pages and pass them on.

In KING HEDLEY II, we have an occasion where the stories told by the play’s characters are more arresting than what’s happening on stage, which is a barrier that Daniels’ cast doesn’t consistently overcome.  KING HEDLEY II is sort of a sequel; characters we have met in Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS reappear or are referenced in HEDLEY. There’s also Aunt Ester, the scion of the Hill District believed to be 366 years old, who has died, casting a pall over the entire proceedings. Since we’re talking about hard-scrabble, hustling people trying to tap out a living in 1985, things weren’t all that sunny to begin with.

The title character is an ordinary man with a regal-sounding name who has little hope of being anything but ordinary, a man full of rage where hope should be. King (Aaron Jennings) has spent seven years in prison and has a scar on his face from a knife fight. Now determined to live his life on his own terms, he sells refrigerators with friend since childhood Mister (Christian Henley) who is barely holding down a job of his own.

King’s wife, Tonya, (Kacie Rogers) has a dim view of any future for the baby she is carrying, and she’s also raising a teen-age daughter of her own.  They share a house with King’s mother Ruby (Veralyn Jones), a former singer whose help and love King largely eschews. The arrival of Vera’s former flame, Elmore, (Ben Cain) to check on King, and gather whether he has “learned anything” from his time on the inside, sets some action in motion. Elmore is a hustler, and he knows certain things.

Finally, there is Stool Pigeon (Gerald Rivers), neighborhood crier, dispenser of wisdom and conduit to the past whose collection of bundled up newspapers contain the stories of Urban Blight (City Violence Escalates!”) that Stool Pigeon believes is part of the narrative. “You’ve got to know that,” is one of his refrains. As is “God is a motherfucker.” In KING HEDLEY II, believers or nonbelievers alike wouldn’t disagree, but that’s also a too-easy out. King doesn’t live his life with this mindset. When he gets a blow, he strikes back. One of his cheeks has already been knifed, and he’s not about to offer up the other one. Jennings is neither big nor imposing, but his first-act closing scream of defiance and validation establishes this character as a force.

He meets his match in Rogers’ Tonya, a character who has endured much and who now has the practical good sense not to dream any greater than “just come home safe every day.” With a few exceptions, the men of August Wilson’s plays tend to outspeak, out-sing and generally outshine the women, and this is very much the case with KING HEDLEY II. But when Rogers is on stage, going toe to toe with King, shooting the breeze with Stool Pigeon or standing up for her interests, the production gets some additional heft. (This was the play and the role that earned Viola Davis her first Tony Award.)   

A mural of Willie Mays peers out over scenic designer Efram Delgadillo Jr.’s series of decaying houses. You can get a glimpse of the Pittsburgh skyline from inside King and Tonya’s house. Out back, there’s enough dirt for King to plant seeds from which, he hopes, flowers will grow. “This the only dirt I got,” King reminds Ruby, the mother he barely acknowledges. “This me right here.”

As events unfold, we are due for revelations, confrontations and violence. People looking for even a glimmer of hope in this everyman’s odyssey will need to root a lot deeper than the seeds in King’s precious dirt. When he wrote KING HEDLEY II, Wilson was still two plays away from completing his cycle – RADIO GOLF, his 1990s-set finale which looked to the future and the past and the 1907-set GEM OF THE OCEAN which puts Aunt Ester on stage and sets the cycle in motion.  

It's a good thing he didn’t lay down his pen with HEDLEY. The stories need to continue. Flawed or bleak though these tales may be, Gregg T. Daniel and A Noise Within know how to tell them.  

KING HEDLEY II plays through April 28 at 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.

Photo of Kacie Rogers and Aaron Jennings by Craig Schwartz



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