King Hedley II: The Tragedie of...
"It's perfectly good dirt," insists the title character of August Wilson's King Hedley II, as he plants seeds in a ground that can hardly be called soil. Later on, after someone carelessly steps on his tiny sprouts, not even noticing they're there, King wraps protective barbed wire around his fledgling garden. The final production in the Signature Theatre Company's outstanding August Wilson season is the 1980's entry of the author's cycle of ten plays depicting a decade-by-decade account of black experiences in the 20th Century. Here, his beloved Hill District of Pittsburgh, the center of black culture which has been the setting for so many of Wilson's works, is reduced to a patch of dirt seemingly unfit to nourish anything. It's where crime seems the only way out of poverty and where a new mother might realistically wonder how many years it will be before she's called to identify her child's dead body.
With characters from Wilson's 1940's drama Seven Guitars and references to the now 366-year-old Aunt Ester who was the focus of Gem of the Ocean, King Hedley II feels more like a transitional piece than a full-standing play. Its title suggesting a Shakespearean demise, the drama doesn't so much begin and end as take the cycle's heroic central character, the community itself, down to its lowest depths, perhaps setting us up for a rise in Radio Golf, his 1990's play set to open on Broadway in May. Nevertheless, the evening is full of the rich poetic language and humor of Wilson, and director Derrick Sanders' production feels swift at its three hours plus length.
After serving seven years for second-degree murder, King (a muscular, simmering volcano, Russell Hornsby) is trying to raise enough money to open a video store with his partner Mister (Curtis McClarin with jittery comic realism), who can't afford to save for the future because he has little to live on in the present. King's latest business venture, offered to him by a prison-mate, is an opportunity to sell a supply of refrigerators stashed for a limited time in a secret location. The less he knows about the enterprise, the more honest it seems. But with his wife Tonya (an emotionally defeated Cherise Booth), a thirty five year old grandmother, expecting another child (which she wants to abort), King convinces Mister to help him rob a local jewelry store so he can provide for his family like a responsible father.
Giving consistently memorable performances in August Wilson plays, Stephen McKinley Henderson is warm, humorous and calculatingly menacing as con artist Elmore, who has come back into the life of King's former singer mother Ruby, played with earthy and weathered sexuality by Lynda Gravatt. Those who know Wilson's Seven Guitars can quickly sense what Elmore's presence leads to.
Lou Myers adds a discomforting edge to the role of Stool Pigeon, the mentally unstable evangelist who stores stacks of newspapers in his home.
David Gallo, who designed a realistic set for the Broadway production, goes a bit more impressionistic this time in his depiction of Ruby and Stool Pigeon's shared backyard, their homes separated by a view of a dilapidated old billboard featuring the confident smiling face of a black baseball player. (I didn't recognize the face, but he was wearing either a New York Mets or a New York Giants cap and no, it wasn't Willie Mays.) It nicely suits a text that teeters between natural speech and long, meaty monologues.
With this majestic production capping off a season that has also included a sweetly strummed Seven Guitars and an entrancing Two Train Running, one might hope for The Signature Theatre Company to mount revivals of every August Wilson play.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Cherise Booth and Russell Hornsby
Center: Lynda Gravatt and Stephen McKinley Henderson
Bottom: Curtis McClarin and Lynda Gravatt