Sunday, June 5, 2011

Theatre review: "King Hedley II" from Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater-Sunday June 5th 2011

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Producing Artistic Director Mark Clayton Southers has long shown an affinity for making the most and best of the work of August Wilson. And now, finally, his company is offering a new production of a Wilson play at the August Wilson Center. Southers didn’t direct this version of King Hedley II. Instead it is guided by Eileen J. Morris who has major credits staging Wilson’s work elsewhere.

Morris and her cast make it vivid, dynamic, colorful and perilously dramatic. As Christopher Rawson points out in his superior program notes, this is Wilson’s darkest play and that the layered plot may be hard going for some audiences. I briefly studied the story line before attending and that gave me a sense of the essence of the major developments. However, given that Wilson regularly evokes what he calls “black street vernacular” I did not find the dialogue easy to understand. I especially had trouble with nearly every word said by one leading performer who seemed to be constantly swallowing her words and emphases

Wilson is always trying to say more than to just depict actions, behavior and results. He’s known for writing about how and why the African-American people he represents do what they do. Those characters deeply ponder the details of their own lives. Such background is also at the heart of his writing, concerning daily struggles with love, death, spirituality and making ends meet in a culture where race relations frame and lie behind what happens or can’t happen to them.

King Hedley II is Wilson’s next to last play and is set in the 1985 Hill District. Although the title suggests some kind of long-ago classic and it could be considered a tragedy, Hedley is no king. King is his first name. Yet, trying to rule his life, produce an heir and maintain his honor, Wilson’s choice of a name has resonance. Hedley and a buddy named Mister eke out existence selling stolen refrigerators and plot a robbery to finance a new business. King spent years in prison for having killed a man who severely cut his face. Back home he lives with his mother Ruby and his wife Tonya. Ruby’s one-time lover Elmore returns to the neighborhood, intent on getting back together with Ruby. Like King, he too spent time in prison for having killed a man. Always present is a neighbor called Stool Pigeon, a half-crazy, sometimes chronicler of life and death on the streets.

Clearly violence and vengeance lurk within the grimy, trash-cluttered framework, personified by several loaded guns. Much of what is said, meanwhile, in the three hours this runs, is about what these people have done and will do next, detailed in many extended monologues. Tellingly, Wilson has both King and Elmore find empathy for the men they killed. Yet, had I not done background reading, I’m not sure how much I could have followed.

Solidly truthful performances by three leading actors always make those characters clear and memorable. Benjamin Cain’s impressive version of King seethes with believable rebellion against a society which keeps him down. As Elmore, Kevin Brown vibrates with personality and panache. Plus Tyla Abercrumbie brings sweet, genuine maturity to the role of Tonya, King’s wife. Yet I found Chrystal Bates’ as Ruby, an equally important role, constantly unintelligible, a case of style over substance. Director Morris probably knows the script so well that she may have forgotten that some of us white folks aren't all that familiar with the kind of language Wilson writes. Often, on opening night, when Ruby spoke, the only people laughing where those sitting near Morris. They got it, even if the rest of us didn't seem to. Meanwhile, Jonas Chaney never overdoes the idiosyncrasies of Stool Pigeon but he raced through too many lines which could have been more interesting and clear.

During the performance parts of recordings by Miles Davis and John Coltrane faded in and out, a distracting, pointless, embellishment, sometimes annoying when competing with dialogue.

Mark Clayton Southers also designed the set, a thing he always does superbly and which, as always, gives substance to such productions. Even though he did not stage this, the cast and director bring their own substance and truth to the urgent tale.

King Hedley II continues through Sunday, June 12th at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Avenue downtown. Pro Arts Tickets the source :412/ 394 3353. Info at

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