<i>King Hedley II</i> — Go!

Oliver Bokelberg

August Wilson’s King Hedley II takes place in the 1980s, when Reaganomics, and the notion that wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor, was the hypothetical order of the day. The reality, of course, is that no such trickling took place; the poor, black and white, grew poorer than ever, a circumstance we see in the struggle of Wilson’s title character to earn a living for himself and his family, and to garner, against the odds, some measure of self-respect.

King (Esau Pritchett) is an ex-con who’s been to prison for killing a man who’d attacked him with a razor and slashed his face. Along with his good friend Mister (Jon Chaffin), he dreams of opening a video store. But the two men lack cash, so they become involved in selling hot refrigerators to raise capital. When that doesn’t get them enough money, they rob a bank — and still they are short.

Meanwhile, King’s ventures in petty crime upset his relationship with the women he lives with: his mother, Ruby (Ella Joyce), a former nightclub singer now in her 60s, and his wife, Tonya (Ciera Payton), pregnant with a child she doesn’t want to have in a world she doesn’t want to live in. Their altercations compound King’s anger and frustration at a system he perceives as stacked against him, and with reason.

As if the situation weren’t already combustible, along comes Elmore (Montae Russell), Ruby’s former lover, bent on wooing and winning back her affections. He’s an expert grifter not above enacting cons on his lady love’s son, and he sports a gun.

It's not for nothing that Wilson is regarded as the great chronicler of the African-American experience, though his dramas, frequently three hours long as this one is, require patience from the audience and enormous craft from the performers. Moreover, King Hedley II can be a puzzle if you’re unfamiliar with Wilson’s other plays; Ruby and Elmore’s backstory can be found in Seven Guitars, and the characters’ reference to Aunt Ester, a woman with special powers, lacks context unless you know she is referenced in Wilson’s other work as well. Also, a sharp turn in the plot in Act 2, which leads to the denouement, seemed to come out of nowhere, diminishing for me the integrity of the outcome.

But the playwright’s mastery of character and dialogue remains unassailable, and this production, directed by Michele Shay, is rendered with humor, strength and finesse. Of particular note are Joyce as the forthright Ruby, as tough, sensuous and womanly as she ever was, and Russell as the slippery-tongued Elmore, a man who seemingly can’t live unless he’s conjuring up some con. Pritchett knocks you out in a couple of powerhouse scenes, especially at the conclusion of Act 1; in other places the character’s heavy-duty anger could use shading.

Designer John Iacovelli renders an apt exterior for the impecunious domiciles of King and his fire-and-brimstone–spouting neighbor, Stool Pigeon (Adolphus Ward), although I did wish for one or two more places for the characters to sit as they listened at length to one another. Makeup designer Sheila Dorn has fashioned a scar for King that is haunting.
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