Review of 'King Hedley II' by August Wilson, Tricycle Theatre, London
'King Hedley II' is the eighth in August Wilson's projected cycle of ten plays exploring the black experience in each decade of the 20th century. Set in the Reaganite 1980s in Pittsburgh's Hill District, it is a time of urban devastation brought on by slash and burn economic policies. Job opportunities are scarce and violence is a part of everyday life. Like all of Wilson's plays, starting with 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom', and including 'Fences' and 'The Piano Lesson', for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, it is set in the background of an American society created by racism.
The play tells the story of the title character, an ex-convict who is at war with both his past and his present. The King is selling hot refrigerators along with his partner Mister, (named Mister so the white man will show him respect) scrambling to get enough money together to start their own business. King's wife, Tonya, the 35 year old mother of a teenager who is herself a mother, is struggling with the news that she is pregnant again. King is the son of Ruby, the high-spirited young woman of Wilson's 'Seven Guitars'. Ruby's history of hooking up with unreliable men continues with Elmore, a smooth-talking conman from her past with the capacity to poison the future. 'King Hedley II' is the darkest of Wilson's works, the most deserving of the Shakespearean echo of its title. Yet it is always amusing, with fully developed characters who demand to be heard. Truthful monologues allow characters to tell it like it is.
Wilson says 'That's the role of theatre, is to make sure the story is told. Write about the history, and the truth will be clear.' His own history informs his work. He dropped out of the 10th grade of Gladstone High School when a teacher accused him of plagiarising a 20-page paper on Napoleon. He got his own education at the library and on the street. Music, particularly jazz and blues, is a recurrent theme in Wilson's works, and is reflected in the lyrical dialogue. Wilson recalls 'my plays stem from impressions I formed on The Hill in the '50s and '60s...Those were times of great struggle and change for blacks. I was drawn to the Black Power movement in the 1960s.' He helped found a volunteer troupe in his native Pittsburgh that mounted the incendiary works of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). 'I tried to write myself, but I wasn't any good at dialogue,' he says--a surprising judgement for a playwright whose skills are so illuminating. Wilson gives words to trumpeters and trash men, cabbies and conjurers, boarders and landladies, all joined by a heritage of slavery and racist American society. Their patois is his poetry, their dreams are his dramas.
Throughout the play there is the influence of Aunt Nester, a 399 year old black woman who has finally died. She has appeared a lot in the previous plays of the cycle and in my opinion her years refer to the years since the black population arrived in America. Wilson intimates that something has died in the black community and this death represents that loss. Although I think this is deeply pessimistic Wilson still manages to give a brilliant explanation of violence in the mean streets. Violence comes from the very need to survive, the brutes come from brutish conditions, and low horizons and hopelessness garner them. As King says 'I know which way the wind blows and it don't blow my way'. The only job he is offered from school is that of janitor and even that is removed as recession bites.
The play lasts three hours and held the audience for every minute of the performance by gritty humour and machine gun rap lines. There are some great performances from Joseph Marcell as the intrusive scam-merchant, Rakie Ayola as King's pregnant, straightforwardly honest wife and Pat Bowie as his mother steeped in her memories of her earlier career as a songstress. Treat yourself--head down the Tricycle Theatre and if you have the chance see his other plays.