*”King Hedley II” is a play by American playwright August Wilson, the eighth in his ten-part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play is currently in production at the famed Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. from now through March 15. The following is an exclusive review for EUR by Kathy Ade.
*It’s the rhythm of life, not death that is the true focus of August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” which opened last night at the Arena Stage in a striking production.
Set in the gritty backdrop of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, we follow Hedley in 1985, where Hedley, fresh from a seven year jail term, wants to overcome the hardship and oppression he has been exposed to and make a better life for himself, his mother, Ruby, and his expecting wife Tonya. His immediate goal is to save up the $10,000 he needs to make a down payment on a video store he wants to rent with money from selling stolen refrigerators with his friend Mister.
Through his works, Wilson, the epic storyteller, believed that the fullness and richness of everyday life could be rendered without compromise or sentimentality. In this latest production, we can clearly see the rhythmic and colorful infusion of life that Wilson paints for the men and women living in the backyard of a ravaged row house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. For them, life is a pulsating wave of fear and trembling, discouragement and disillusionment, strength and hope. As Ruby says “Life’s got its own rhythm. It don’t always go along with your rhythm. That’s all life is … trying to match up them two rhythms.”
The tensions found in the contradictions of the life of the underclass are artfully shown in the powerful performance by King-Bowman Wight. King is trying to live down a murder he committed, and the prison term that followed. The penny-ante work he can get isn’t enough for a down payment on his modest plan of opening a video store with Mister (a witty and vibrant performance by Kenyatta Rogers). We remain captivated as he weaves his tale against the backdrop of violence and personal failures that plague each cast member. Wright’s vocal and physical presence make King a towering, powerful figure – a soulful Baritone reaching climatic heights in this street Aria wrought with desperation and pain.
Kenyatta Rogers provides a notable performance as Mister, acting as a perfect complement to the intensity of Wright’s King. His performance serves as a comedic chorus to Wright’s tormented verses. Andre De Shields as Stool Pigeon, the next door neighbor, provides urban renderings of the Scripture that evoke that warm feeling you get on a Sunday when the sermon speaks directly to you. De Shields performance is both comedic and powerful – a striking Oratoria on God’s presence. Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore and Jessica Frances Dukes as Tonya give valiant performances, though each of their roles feel disconnected to the overall pulse of the play. Their performances have the same effect as the cigarettes and toy guns that are brandished- plot devices.
Unfortunately, Timothy Douglas’s –production of “King Hedley II” lacks cohesion and rhythm. Notable performances y wright and Rogers present a more rounded experience than script often does. E. Faye Butler, as King’s mother, Ruby, is less successful, though her laid-back take on the character. Her moments lack the warmth and depth that make Ruby’s pain believable – disappointing at best.
Like the rhythmic melody of life, this production of “King Hedley II” feels like a disgruntled lover, throwing you a curveball when you think you have it figured out. With its three hours of production time, you are cognizant of every moment. The production lacks cohesion and feels like a series of interesting pieces that have not fully connected. It can feel sluggish and drawn out, not fully gaining momentum to reach a noteworthy climax. The production of King Hedley II is striking in some moments, but generally leaves one humming a melody but not fully embracing the full tune.
“King Hedley II” runs until March 8, 2015. For more info contact Arena Stage (www.arenastage.org/).
Kathy Ade ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and avid theatre-goer, She covers most things entertainment including Broadway shows, awards season, film festivals, Hollywood events, and interesting celebrity news. She also provides original interviews. She lives in Bowie, MD.