Categories

King Hedley II – At Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 14, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Jessica Frances Dukes as Tonya and Bowman Wright as King in King Hedley II - Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) Jessica Frances Dukes as Tonya and Bowman Wright as King in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Hangin’ in the hood in the 1980’s wasn’t so very different than it is today.  In playwright August Wilson’s King Hedley II we find that guns, gambling, alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and prison time informed the toughest inner city neighborhoods and still does.  It bears mentioning in light of the recent incidents in Ferguson and New York City, that this play reflects a societal atmosphere that is not much changed.  The final play of Wilson’s ten-part cycle dives headlong into the seamy side of the African-American experience, setting the play in Pittsburgh’s rough Hill District (it’s still a dangerous place) and creating characters that appear to have stepped out of a Thomas Hart Benton mural or a Shakespearean tragedy.

Bowman Wright plays King Hedley, a man out of luck, out of money and out of opportunities.  (Coincidentally Wright played another King  – – as in Martin Luther King, Jr. – – in Arena’s earth-shattering production of The Mountaintop favorably reviewed here in April 2013.)

In this concentrated circle of life King is married to Tonya (Jessica Frances Duke), a young woman who aims to escape the ghetto and avoid another unwanted pregnancy through her steady job.  Ruby (E. Faye Butler), a feisty yet endearing matriarch who rules the neighborhood and brooks no jive talk, has raised King with high hopes for his post-prison redemption.  But Mister (Kenyatta Rogers) King’s crony and partner in crime has other ideas to raise fast cash for their hoped-for video store and hooks King up selling hot refrigerators while making plans for an armed robbery.  In a world of dead ends there are few options and many temptations.

(L to R) Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore and E. Faye Butler as Ruby in King Hedley II -  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore and E. Faye Butler as Ruby in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the notorious gambler Elmore (Michael Anthony Williams) returns after serving time for murder, Ruby, who has a past with Elmore, warns, “He talks sugar and gives salt.”  Elmore teases her, “You still pretty.  You just old.”  In this hood there’s plenty of colorful trash talking to go around and enough gallows humor to lighten the load.

Bearing witness is the graybeard Stool Pigeon (André De Shields) – – a bible-spouting newspaper hoarder whose wisdom and experience is lost on the men’s nefarious activities.  “God’s got a plan,” he warns them, “and God is a bad mother****er!”

André De Shields as Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

André De Shields as Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Timothy Douglas, who has directed most of Wilson’s plays, brings a concentrated pathos to the stage, setting the play in the round to reflect the cyclical nature of the characters’ lives and the destructive outcome of their interdependence.  Douglas keeps the actors onstage, or perched nearby, at all times, intertwining their lives amid the concrete wreckage of designer Tony Cisek’s sparse set.

Composer and Sound Designer Ryan Rumery evokes the period with soulful strains reminiscent of the era.  In fact some of the play’s lines seem grabbed straight from the lyrics of that tumultuous period.

Bowman Wright as King and the cast of King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater -  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Bowman Wright as King and the cast of King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The cast is tight, tight, tight.  Wright, undoubtedly one of the country’s pre-eminent actors, delivers another brilliantly intense performance.  But so too, do Butler, whose comic timing is dead on, Williams, who creates an Elmore who is as unctuous and riveting as a snake oil salesman, and De Shields whose portrayal of Stool Pigeon is award-worthy.

Tough and gritty, but highly recommended.

Through March 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Comments are closed.