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BWW Reviews: Hattiloo's KING HEDLEY II Gets the Royal Treatment

Has anyone ever observed that playwright August Wilson, in a series of dramas which mythically follow the fortunes (or misfortunes) of a black family throughout the twentieth century, has accomplished in theatre what novelist William Faulkner achieved in novels set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi? Instead of the Southern ideal and specter of "Colonel Sartoris," representing a long-lost standard of living that has been usurped by "po' white trash" like the "Snopes," Wilson instead employs "Aunt Ester," the long-lived (if three hundred-sixty-six years can be considered long) matriarch of the descendants who populate the ten-play cycle. In KING HEDLEY II, "Aunt Ester" has, alas, finally passed and is buried; and, in a sense, so have the material and spiritual prospects for King's family - his wife "Tonya" and his unwelcome mother "Ruby," who was nowhere to be seen in King's youth, as Ruby's late sister was more of a mother.

In Hattiloo Theatre's staging of this grim, powerful drama, violence and death are not only omnipresent, but cast a troubling shadow on the characters who traverse the empty lot and tenements of an impoverished area in Pittsburgh in the 1980's. The audience accepts the horrors wrought by this wall of poverty - the characters are evidently accustomed to them and accept them almost as "matter of fact. " We are constantly being informed of drive-by shootings and victims. Yet, as in many tragedies, King Hedley, sporting a scar, recently released from prison for killing a man, and trying to make a new life by saving enough money to open a video store, is thwarted at every turn. Like the seeds he plants in an unlikely soil (I wonder if he bought them at the same store in which DEATH OF A SALESMAN's "Willy Loman" shopped), King himself struggles to break through the ceiling of poverty that oppressively offers no way out. The purchase of such a store might at least provide a temporary relief from the family's economic suffering, but when "Mister," King's best friend and prospective partner, seeks to take his share out, King begins to think of a more drastic remedy toward achieving his goals - robbery. No one is supposed to get hurt, but, as in the great Greek tragedies, nothing ever goes quite as expected.

As if this weren't complication enough, Ruby, whose late sister had basically been responsible for raising King, has not only turned up to nest, but is warily expecting her former, unfaithful lover "Elmore"; Tonya, who has had to raise a wayward daughter while her husband was in prison and has had to deal with the fact that King had a special kind of love for his late mistress, is pregnant and considering an abortion; and King, like OEDIPUS, is ripped by his desire to set his life on a right path and his frustration at having no means to do so, a dilemma which leads to dire consequences at the end of the play.

It's fascinating, in fact, to study the relationships between and among these characters. As in a tragedy by Sophocles, nothing moves "according to plan": It's as if they're running in a maze with no exits. KING HEDLEY II might well be called "Six Degrees of Aunt Ester," as there are six principals who inhabit the play. Beyond the family, there is King's friend "Mister," a catalyst to the disaster that follows. Buying a gun from the slick Elmore, he eventually will pass it on to another character, as the audience anxiously realizes that it is following the very instrument that will end in the death of one of the characters. (The passing of this derringer from one character to another accounts for a good bit of tension in the play.) Finally, as a possible variation on "Aunt Ester," there is "Stool-Pigeon," who, in his "mad prophet" way, might well have insights that the other characters lack (in that respect, he recalls the fools and mad men of Shakespearean drama).

For those seeking a deeper appreciation of the play, I would advise that they take note of the following: The symbolism of the seeds, Stool-Pigeon's worshipful burial of Aunt Ester's cat, sacrificial blood, the gift of a key chain, and the key to "the mountain." Yet, there's enough to appreciate about this play without analyzing all that. Each strongly developed character has at least one major monolog that is brilliantly written and performed. Johnathan Williams' Bible-quoting "Stool-Pigeon" may be mentally skewed (I'd put him in a playground with John Steinbeck's "Lennie" from OF MICE AND MEN), but he has an innocence and purity of purpose; he is pitiable, maddening (at least, to Ruby), loveable, and, ultimately, spiritual. David Muskin's "Elmore" is "one slick dude" - snappily dressed, flashing a ring, offering to rattle the dice; this is a man who has "been around the block" and outwitted everyone with whom he comes in contact, and it's entertaining him to watch him take advantage of everyone around him (that is, until he goes too far). Steven Fox's "Mister" is, in many ways, as desperate as "King," but he is also loyal, caring, and necessary as a kind of "Greek chorus" (pay particular attention to the scene in which he echoes almost everything that "King" says). Finally, there is the family. Mary Ann Washington's "Ruby" is an earthy woman who is in her sixties; once a singer with a band, she is still sensual and sassy (Ms. Washington acts with her body as well as her voice; watch the way that she sashays and sways). Her life may have lately become a heap of ashes, but there are plenty of coals beneath them. While she has obviously lived for herself, that does not negate her love for her child. Nichole Jackson's "Tonya," who reminds me of the wife of "Walter Lee" in Lorraine Hansberry's A RAISIN IN THE SUN, is fearful of bringing another child into this environment, has accepted the fact that her husband clearly holds her in second place to his mistress, and fears that "King" will ultimately take a wrong path: She is touching in her love for her husband, her lack of effectiveness in dealing with her (unseen by the audience) daughter, and her resignation to keep rolling Sisyphus' rock up the mountain, plugging away at her job and barely able to make ends meet. Finally, there is the explosive Ekundayo Bandele as "King." With his tortured spirit, ripped apart by Good Angels and Bad Angels, he would be a worthy protagonist in any of the great Greek or Shakespearean tragedies. He can be tender and pleading (as he tries to reconcile with Tonya), understanding and protective (watch him in the scene in which he reacts to an injured "Stool-Pigeon" and wants to pursue those who robbed him - ironically, he has just robbed someone else!) It's a great performance by an actor unafraid to go where his emotions take him (at one point, he tosses a tire onto the audience).

The entire production has been beautifully directed by Erma Elzy, who must have had a dream job working with these actors. Sound Designer Kirby Dukes incorporates, subtly, the sounds of the inner city beyond the acting area; Lighting Designer Quentin Hebda is more than adroit (watch what he does at the explosive end of the play); and Costume Designer Patricia Smith knows where to shop (I particularly enjoyed the suits worn by the towering "Elmore.") Finally, there's that stunningly detailed set design by Mr. Bandele - the greasy panes of the windows, the conduits running along the outside of the grimy brick apartments, the rusting galvanized cans: It reminds me of the famous setting for Elmer Rice's STREET SCENE. It is a character all unto itself. Through April 12. Photo courtesy of Hattiloo Theatre.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)