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Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams
in King Hedley II
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
August Wilson's King Hedley II is the eighth of 10 projected works for a 20th-century cycle of plays. It takes place in a row of tenement backyards blotching Pittsburgh's Hill District. As designed by the ingenious David Gallo, the enclave features, upstage of these backyards, a row of attached tenement houses that look as if they've been chewed at by angry gods. The street, barely glimpsed beyond, has a gentle grade rising to the left--literally indicating the hill. This grade also symbolizes striving. Behind the tenement houses lie other decomposing buildings; beyond them we see an expanse of sky, symbolizing the universe.

As the play starts, a round, agitated man called Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson) enters and, while preparing to feed unseen neighborhood dogs, begins lecturing on several topics. The largest of these is humanity's fate. Invoking the Testaments, Stool Pigeon expounds on destiny; he insists that man has a predetermined beginning and end, though he gets to do some improvising in the middle. "God is a bad motherfucker," he will reiterate during the two-act tragedy, as if he were a furious Greek chorus.

Perhaps the Old Testament dictum most pertinent to King Hedley II is "an eye for an eye," since that's the motivation behind the actions, often violent, in Wilson's complex tale. The obligation to get revenge--a hallmark of manhood as defined by the community--is what ultimately undoes the driven title character. He is an ex-convict who's trying, in a number of confused ways, to improve his lot. These improvements are literal as well as figurative, since King Hedley II (Brian Stokes Mitchell) puts some stage time into growing a garden on his grassless turf. As with so much else in his life, the restless Hedley makes some headway here, but not before he finds himself having to protect his little plot of green with barbed wire. (The script is rife with that kind of symbolism.)

Hedley's plans include joining a buddy caled Mister (Monte Russell) in selling refrigerators they've come by from who-knows-where. The profits are to be put into a pot set aside as a repository of funds to open a video store. But events do conspire against Hedley. Family and friends come and go, distracting him from both real and metaphorical seedlings. His wife, Tonya (Viola Davis), wants him to shape up; so does his mother, Ruby (Leslie Uggams), who has been a model of betrayal for him: When Hedley was a child, Ruby left him in the care of her sister while she fled to East St. Louis to pursue a singing career. (Uggams delivers a few bars of "Red Sails in the Sunset" and sounds lovely doing it.)

More threatening to Hedley is a devious character named Elmore (Charles Brown), who has been the cause of dismay in the past. Indeed, the characters--with the exception of Stool Pigeon, who continues to make tragi-comic, Cassandra-like pronouncements throughout--have been getting on each other's nerves in one way or another for a long time. (Ruby and Stool Pigeon peopled this yard during less rundown days in Wilson's Seven Guitars.) And the fact that many of these gabby, contentious residents are armed with guns doesn't help matters. Rather, it signals that at least one of the firearms is going to go off at the worst possible time. (Incidentally, only an alarm goes off when Hedley and Mister rob a nearby jeweler and appear to get away with the crime. There are no evident repercussions to their rash deed, nor do any of the other figures discuss the semi-bungled heist at any length.)

A whole lot of shaking is going on, then, in King Hedley II. Much of it tracks familiar Wilson interests. Having established the section of Pittsburgh where he grew up as a microcosm with macrocosmic significance, the playwright has once again planted seeds. Much as Wilson's protagonist wishes in the play, these seeds are meant to flower into something soul-nourishing--something that illuminates how African-Americans wind up taking two steps backward every time they think they've taken one step forward. In the recently acclaimed Jitney, Wilson depicts a step forward being taken; in King Hedley II, he chronicles the two-step-backward lurch. Both the title character and the slippery Elmore embody this lurch through retributions they've executed or are planning to execute--vengeance sought for infractions so convoluted that their history is quite difficult to follow.

As is typical of Wilson, he puts marvelous people on stage in King Hedley II. They are articulate and energetic and all riled up. He sets them to talking the kind of poetic prose that gets audiences swooning, this from a playwright who claims (as he told The New Yorker's John Lahr) that he has only seen about a dozen plays in his life, his own excluded. The characters go at each other in great swaths of amusing, colorful verbiage. Some of the best talk in the play goes to Stool Pigeon, who philosophizes continually about his people's plight. At one point, explaining how African-Americans harm one another as a result of their oppression (a Wilson theme from as far back as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), he says: "Niggers bust you up; white men fix you up."

Stool Pigeon's grand ravings are an indication of Wilson's own attempt to take a dramaturgical step forward. Although his plays have always had universal implications, this time out he seems intent on underlining the mythological import of the characters' conflicts. The prolific playwright apparently wants his use of Stool Pigeon as the equivalent of a Greek chorus to be seen as valid, in that his Hill District citizens are no less exalted than the characters of Aeschylus. (Here, he's treading on Arthur Miller's grounds; though he also told Lahr that, when he began writing his plays, he hadn't read Miller or, for that matter Chekhov, Ibsen, Williams or O'Neill. Wow!) His final tableau--a pieta gone calamitously wrong--reflects grandiose longings.

This may be the reason for the drama's rather large flaws: In going for a greater meaning, Wilson has neglected too many basics. Although his plays are at times as hard-hitting as a heavyweight's swing, they are marred by over-writing. The characters run on, beguiled by the sound of their own voices. Long-standing showbiz rumor has it that Wilson resists editing. (Prolixity was not a problem in Jitney, which was written in the late '70s, before the playwright may have stopped listening to constructive criticism.) This time it's not overblown monologues that swell his script; it's the plethora of entangled, confounding stories included to the detriment of logic that undoes King Hedley II. Crucially, we are left wondering how much is known about Hedley, since much of the story is sketched in too rapidly for his tragedy to be earned. Why, for example, is there no follow-up whatsoever to the robbery? Is it credible that King Hedley and Mister would get off quite so easily?

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, convincingly interwoven narrative.

While these troubled folks may not cohere, the ensemble playing does. And if director Marion McClinton found himself running up against Wilson's recalcitrance (this is mere conjecture, of course), he looks to have encountered no such trouble with his actors, all of whom are vibrant, cunning and winning. Mitchell makes Hedley's frustrated demands for release a clarion call; the scar on his left cheek clearly represents both a past barroom brawl and his greater psychological damage. Davis, Russell and Brown are as alive as bolts of lightning. Henderson, one of the most reliable and lovable Wilson players, once again inhabits his character effortlessly. And Uggams as Ruby, who says she's 62, is something of a revelation. Every nuance is in place to suggest a woman anxious about her past behavior but damned if it's going to inhibit her experience of the present.

Still, in Wilson's scheme--a play for every decade of the 20th century--the '80s are a disappoinment.

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