King Hedley II. By August Wilson. Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Ben Cain, Tyla Abercrumbie, Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Jonas Chaney, and Leslie “Ezra” Smith. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in association with August Wilson Center for African American Culture. 980 Liberty Avenue Pittsburgh, PA.
Often described as the darkest play of Wilson’s twentieth-century cycle, King Hedley II is set in the Hill District section of Pittsburgh in the 1980s. The story of one family’s struggle for understanding and identity, it is the eighth play that Wilson wrote, and the only to pick up with characters and conflicts introduced earlier in the cycle (Seven Guitars).
The play has a single setting—the backyard of King’s family home where he, his wife Tonya, and his mother Ruby, live. The set consists of two dilapidated brick houses, the land surrounding them littered with an old rubber tire and other debris. At the play’s opening, King is planting seeds in a plot of bad soil, an act which quickly becomes a metaphor for his frustrated attempts to escape the stigma of his murder sentence and subsequent stint in jail. Now, King clings to hopes of building a better life for himself and his pregnant wife. Tensions rise with a surprise visit from Elmore, the smooth-talking, long-time suitor of Ruby, as well as an announcement from newspaper-hoarding next-door-neighbor Stool Pigeon: Aunt Ester, the 366-year-old spirit guide (she’s as old as slavery in the United States), has died, leaving the community without a moral compass.
The stakes are high from beginning to end, the characters plagued with existential questions about identity, family, justice, and retribution. Ben Cain gives a stunning performance as King, the father-to-be trying to lift himself above the physical violence and moral transgressions that “mark” him. Chrystal Bates is both hilarious and heartbreaking as King’s mother, Ruby, a washed-up road singer with a troubled romantic history.
Staging presents a challenge in any of Wilson’s plays, which are rich with character development and dialogue rather than action. King Hedley II is monologue-heavy, but this is well-handled by the performers, especially Cain and Tyla Abercrumbie (Tonya), who deliver their speeches with rawness and honesty.
As with many of Wilson’s plays, King Hedley II forces audiences to consider how external pressures and tensions often wind up—tragically—when they are played out inside the family home. For while the conflicts of King Hedley II are often rooted in white hegemony—King’s outrage about everything from the legal system to sales receipts—the real tragedy here is that of a family troubled by the past, destroyed by pride.
For those interested in further study of August Wilson’s plays, the Center holds a monthly reading round table. More information can be found here: