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BWW Reviews: A Masterful KING HEDLEY II at Arena Stage

When the Ferguson riots broke out this past fall, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Wilson issued a letter expressing all the frustrations and fears of his community. But rather than focus exclusively on racial issues, he decried a popular culture that promotes an invincible attitude among young black men. He concluded and used all-caps to emphasize his point: "ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority."

I can't help thinking that the late August Wilson, from his perch on high, was nodding in agreement and sympathy. It is easy to make the obvious points, to talk about the cancerous effects of white racism; it is much harder to look inward, to look for the biblical 'beam in one's own eye,' as August Wilson did. In each play of his 10-play cycle, focused on the 20th century experience of African America, he looked to his neighbors and lovingly, but firmly, threw up the mirror to show them as they were, warts and all.

King Hedley II, in Timothy Douglas' riveting and thrilling production now at Arena Stage, portrays life in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1980's (making it the ninth play in his 10-play cycle, for those keeping count). This six-character play is a symphony of rage, despair, hope, regret, love and determination. The title character, a convicted murderer recently released from prison, has married, found a job and is trying to get his life back together. But the restlessness that comes with youth, and the pressure he places on himself to make up for time lost, to become a success and provide for his wife-and possibly, in the near future, a family-lead him to make a series of moves that ultimately prove his undoing.

Hedley (a fiery, unforgettable Bowman Wright) is in trouble from the git-go; we see him conspiring with his best friend Mister (the gravelly, engaging Kenyatta Rogers) to sell stolen refrigerators, which is only the beginning of their criminal enterprises together. In a highly symbolic act that Wilson is famous for, Hedley picks a spot in the crumbling pavement outside his house to plant flowers. He insists that the soil, as barren as it seems, is still good, and over the course of the play Hedley is proven right-given enough water, enough nurture and protection, it seems flowers can grow wherever you plant them. The trick with flowers, as with human beings, is the long struggle required to see them through to full blossom; that's where the stuff of triumph and tragedy lies.

The moral center of the play is Stool Pigeon, whose prophetic voice and biblical citations are always spot-on-albeit peppered with colorful language one is not likely to hear from the pulpit. (It's not every day you hear someone refer to the Almighty, in all awe and reverence, as "a bad m-----f-----"). André de Shields, decked out in a shock of Frederick Douglass-like grey hair, holds the stage with a uniquely spiritual authority. His opposite is the slick troublemaker Elmore, who arrives on the scene ready to stir the pot; he comes with plans to marry Hedley's mother Ruby (another fine turn by E. Faye Butler), and settle a few old scores along the way. Michael Anthony Williams, already familiar to Washington audiences from productions like Round House's Two Trains Running and the recently-closed Intelligent Homosexual's Guide at Theatre J, is moving from strength to strength here, and his transformation into a consummate con-artist here is a joy to see.

As with other Wilson plays the action of King Hedley II centers, technically, on the troubled male characters. But what makes August Wilson's work so resonant, what will make his work essential to the American stage for generations to come, are his women. Time and again they prove to be the play's true compass, and their passionate pleas for decency, stability, and fidelity are as unforgettable as they are, sadly, ignored.

The most memorable speeches here are reserved for Tonya, Hedley's troubled wife, played here by Jessica Frances Dukes. Tonya, who has already lost one teenage daughter to the streets, learns she is now pregnant with Hedley's child; her reluctance to carry the baby to term is shocking, but her reasons are impossible to ignore. See sees right through all of Hedley's schemes, his plans to get rich quick, and tells him bluntly:

"King, you don't understand. I don't want everything ... Your job is to be around so this baby can know you its daddy."

Dukes' inimitable delivery of the word in italics here (a resounding "A-ROUND") cuts through all Hadley's egoism and braggadocio with precision, and lays down a challenge that he cannot ignore. Nor can we.

Timothy Douglas has embraced the opportunity to stage Wilson's play in the round, and Tony Cisek has created a spare, concrete-inflected set with decrepit pavement and stoops which sit, strategically, over three of the four entrance ramps on the Finchandler stage. The production has a deliberate, ritualistic tone, with the actors assembling in silence and remaining visible throughout the performance; the effect is one of realism, but from a distance that allows for reflection. The only awkward moment in an otherwise brilliantly-choreographed evening comes with a slow-motion sequence toward the end, which calls for some uncharacteristic slithering that is completely out of tune with the rest of the action.

Ryan Rumery's sound effectively underlines the action, and Ilona Somogyi has found a fine array of costumes from the everyday wear of the younger generation to the shabby dignity of Stool Pigeon and Elmore and Ruby's shine-and-polish. Allen Lee Hughes, meanwhile, has found a masterful balance of light and color to punctuate the various twists and turns of the plot. Chuck Fox has also done an effective job arming the menfolk here with the appropriate pistols, as well as a dead black cat-which, given the concurrent production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore uptown, makes me wonder whether cat-lovers will ever catch a break in this town.

Production photo: Bowman Wright (in spotlight) as King and the cast of King Hedley II. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Running Time: approximately 3 hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

King Hedley II runs from February 6 to March 8 at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American theatre, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, D.C. For tickets go to www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.


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From This Author Andrew White