August Wilson’s ambitious undertaking of writing a drama for each decade of the 20th century about the African-American experience has taken on many of the attributes of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. Like the 19th century composer, Wilson has created a world with its own mythology, populated by unforgettable characters.
The analogy to opera is not so strange, as Wilson’s style of writing is filled with rhythm, metaphors, and a sense of grandeur. He has listened to the inflections in the speech patterns of the people he had set on stage, and fashioned them into dialogue that is as close to poetic theater as we’re likely to find on the contemporary stage. A street-wise, moody score composed by Max Roach serves as counterpoint to the spoken words.
King Hedley II has divided its world premiere among three theaters in a production that is changing and growing as it moves around the country. The Boston run at the Huntington follows presentations in Pittsburgh and Seattle earlier this season. King Hedley II is on the upcoming schedules at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The play takes place in the 1980s when Reaganomics widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Nowhere was the dividing line more starkly drawn than around
Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the mostly African-American neighborhood that has become Wilson-country. The era’s yen for money was no less urgent for the young men out of work than for the corporate executives who had turned the government’s benevolence into fortunes. One symbol of the times was the widespread ownership of guns as gangs staked their claims to the inner city streets.
King Hedley II, the title character of Wilson’s play, wants the same things for his pregnant wife as any other man: a little business of his own and a home, but he’s thwarted by a society steeped in prejudice. He seeks to assert his identity and his manhood by achieving a piece of the American dream in any way he can. His buddy, Mister, has the same goal. Their solution is to sell stolen refrigerators–no questions asked–and finally, to rob the neighborhood jewelry store. The issues of personal honor, dignity, and sense of self-worth are no less important to King and Mister than to everyone else, despite the different means to an end.
King, portrayed with the authority of a demi-god by Tony Todd, is surrounded by a fine ensemble of actors playing characters intimately tied to him: Marlene Warfield as Ruby, his mother; Ella Joyce as Tonya, his wife; Russell
Andrews in the role of Mister; Charles Brown as Elmore, his mother’s lover; and Mel Winkler as Stool Pigeon, a mystic and a prophet who speaks in Biblical verse about the meaning of the events crashing around them. Under the direction of Marion Isaac McClinton, the sense of the relationships that bind them is made clear, but the weight of the genealogy, as well as the static movement, becomes ponderous by the end. The actors have a lot of standing still to do, while one or another of them speaks the monologues that stud the play.
Wilson understands that the past is a direct influence on the present actions of the characters. The ritual of burying a dead cat or planting a packet of seeds takes on a spiritual meaning in the circle of life and death, adding layers to the unfolding of a day’s events. David Gallo’s stark setting of two brick houses in ruins, their backs turned to the audience, is an visual reminder of the physical decline of the cities where few choices are left to the people who live there.
One problem with this eighth chapter of Wilson’s massive opus is its length; another is the imbalance of the story line. There’s plenty to learn about each character, and a certain amount of action, but the plot is crammed into the final moments of the play, shutting it down too quickly to be absorbed.