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King Hedley II

Signature's revival of August Wilson's drama has the same strengths and weaknesses as the play's 2001 Broadway production.

By New York City
Cherise Boothe and Russell Hornsby
in King Hedley II
(© Carol Rosegg)
Cherise Boothe and Russell Hornsby
in King Hedley II
(© Carol Rosegg)
After an artist dies, there's usually a rush to reassess his or her work. In the instance of August Wilson -- who succumbed in October 2005 -- the opportunity to review the output has been made somewhat easier by the Signature Theatre Company, which had long planned a Wilson season. But there'll be no reassessing from me of the third and final play in Signature's season, King Hedley II. Six years after it bowed on Broadway, Wilson's tragedy strikes me as having the same strengths and weaknesses I thought it had back then.

In reviewing that production for TheaterMania, I wrote: "While Wilson may have had big ideas about how he wanted to frame his latest work, he didn't really have a clear idea of the story he wanted to tell. So he set his characters loose on old subject matter, not the least of which is the dodgy father-son thing. An ironic turn in the play involves the very authenticity of the title: Who the first King Hedley was, and what his relationship is to the second King Hedley, is called into question. As that is played out, the other characters drift, because they're not moored to a tightly plotted, convincing interwoven narrative."

It's the 1980s in Pittsburgh's Hill District, and King Hedley II (Russell Hornsby) has returned after a seven-year prison term, wanting to make up for lost time, although he's angrier than a caged tiger. While evidencing some hope in the future by planting seeds in his barren backyard, he's not averse to selling shadily-gotten refrigerators with homeboy pal Mister (Curtis McClarin) and even carrying out a bungled hold-up that, by the way, has no repercussions.

In addition to sowing those measly plants, King impregnates hard-working wife Tonya (Cherise Boothe), who sees no future in giving birth to a child whose father could be back behind bars at any moment. Among the others clamoring out of the tumble-down brick homes David Gallo has designed -- he also provided the Broadway set -- are King's mom, Ruby (Lynda Gravatt), a former band singer; Elmore (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who's come to win back Ruby years after he killed her husband Leroy and ended his own five-year pokey stint; and next-door-neighbor Stool Pigeon (Lou Myers), who besides explaining how he came to acquire his name does a good deal of Greek-chorus-like fire-and-brimstone spouting at prologue, epilogue, and in-between points.

As the King Hedley II sextet go about their legitimate, illicit and outsized business, guns are bought, sold, flaunted, pointed, hidden, described. More to the point, they're a constant reminder that at least one of them is likely to do eventual and irrevocable damage -- with the hot-headed and law-breaking King Hedley the one most clearly wearing an invisible bull's eye on his forehead.

The menace is in keeping with a belief Wilson couldn't get away from throughout his 10-play cycle (the concluding chapter of which, Radio Golf, bows on Broadway next month.) He repeatedly contended that oppressed communities feed on themselves. It's an unmistakable conclusion to reach, but King Hedley II -- in which that seed bed comes in time to be surrounded by razor-wire -- isn't Wilson's best realization of that view.

Because Wilson always loved music and indulged himself and his characters in long speeches that register as the equivalent of grand opera arias, his plays are always buoyed by those elements. (Ruby gets to sing and dance a waltz; Mister reports that his father was a drummer.) Every one of the actors here gets his or her moment in what could be called the American Idol spotlight. Hornsby, with biceps the size of hams and rage the size of a side of beef, is the most prominent; but Henderson (who played Stool Pigeon in the earlier production) and the rest of the cast also unleash power qualifying them as first-rate Wilson players.

It's something of a mystery why the Signature deciders chose to bring back the lesser King Hedley II when they might have shown off, say, the magnificent Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Perhaps the thought was that the critical and commercial dismissal the play suffered in its previous two-month Broadway run could be rectified. More likely, that unfortunate response will be confirmed.


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