February 6-12, 2003
King Hedley II
The "Hedley" of August Wilson's play is not royalty -- he's a common man living in Pittsburgh -- but the title puts us in mind of Shakespeare. And indeed, one of the many wondrous things about King Hedley II is the sense of epic scale. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it's filled with extended monologues, historical revelations and magical imagery. There's even a kind of Shakespearean tragic clown figure in Stool Pigeon, Hedley's neighbor, a collector of newspapers and odd facts, a man at once backward and wise.
That Wilson can harness such grandeur to a story all too common in modern America is even more remarkable.
King Hedley II continues Wilson's cycle of plays that chronicle the lives of African-American families living in Pittsburgh's Hill district. King Hedley (that's his name -- it was his father's, too) is a still-young man who has already seen more than his share of trouble. His beloved girlfriend, Neesi, died not long ago, and his current relationship with wife Tonya seems an imperfect substitute. He also spent seven years in prison for killing a man who cut his face with a knife. Hedley bears the permanent physical scar. Yet he still dreams, and recently he's had a vision in which he wears a halo. (In the world of Hedley, ghosts seem almost more corporeal than the living.)
Is the twice-marked King Hedley II a saint or a sinner?
Of course, he's both. Hedley is one of Wilson's great creations, a man of infinite complexity. He's capable of gentleness and towering rages. You might see him as a modern Othello (Shakespeare again). And like Othello, Hedley is immersed in a world where tragedy is the inevitable conclusion of a cycle that is at once within his control and beyond it.
Wilson's play indicts nothing less than our collective history for the plight that has befallen his people: Though living in the modern world (King Hedley II takes place in 1985), Hedley and his friends and family are only the latest victims of a two-century cycle of racism and hatred. Yet Wilson is insightful enough to see that his characters themselves perpetuate that cycle.
So Tonya plans to have an abortion and her rationale is both self-sacrificing and selfish: She can't imagine bringing a(nother) child into this world, but personally she also doesn't want the burden. Ruby, Hedley's mother, hides an explosive secret: She justifies her reasons, saying it would only hurt Hedley, but she's also personally unwilling to revisit the painful past. And Hedley himself, knowing the consequences firsthand, goes back into a life of crime and violence.
The general critical consensus has been that Hedley is one of Wilson's weaker works. It's true that some of the earlier plays -- notably Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone are tauter and more plot-driven. But there's great maturity in the writing. I'm reminded not only of Shakespeare, but of another great writer closer to home: Eugene O'Neill. As in Long Day's Journey Into Night, it's not so much the story, but the eloquent character writing, that makes its point.
Consider the monologue of Elmore, one of Hedley's friends, who spins a magic tale of how, with nothing but $1.67 in his pocket and a $100 hat on his head, he won the heart of a woman. It's a charming story, but buried deep in it is the chilling image of a razor. Love and violence, that inseparable pair.
At PTC, Hedley is receiving a splendid production, directed with unerring sensitivity by Seret Scott. Brian Anthony Wilson is a riveting Hedley, and the rest of the ensemble is pitch-perfect. Among so many good actors, I'll single out Johnnie Hobbs Jr.'s heartbreaking, funny Stool Pigeon. Praise too for the scenery (by Yael Pardess) and lighting (by Michael Gilliam). Together, they create an Edward Hopper-ish vision of America that, like the play itself, is both historical and contemporary.
Through Feb. 23, Philadelphia Theatre Company at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St., 215-569-9700