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Presenting King Hedley II

Mills College Weekly

August Wilson is certainly one of
America’s most talented living playwrights, but there is no sugar
coating in his plays. Wilson has the uncanny knack for challenging
his audience to look long and hard at sometimes very difficult
truths. The bold, harsh language and his characters manifest
various flaws of mankind. King Hedley II is an “in your face”
example of Wilson’s theatrical brilliance.

The play is set in 1985 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Reagan-era slash-and-burn economics have brought urban devastation
to a community where job opportunities are scarce and violence is a
part of everyday life.

I found King Hedley II to be emotionally powerful, with the
characters becoming more engaging as the play progresses. The story
focuses upon King Hedley, an ex-con who is deliberately taking a
crooked path to the right side of the law. The opening introduces
us to the “fool” character, Stool Pigeon who (played convincingly
by Charles Branklyn) seems to be a bible-toting zealot delivering
the message that God is planning to end the earth in a firestorm.
He boldly announces that Aunt Ester has died, a 366-year-old woman
who is rumored to have had a close connection with God and was
taken from this life far too soon. Stool Pigeon’s mantra is “God is
a Bad Mutha F____.”

We are then introduced to King, a physically and mentally
intimidating character, and his mother, Ruby, though the
relationship lends nothing to establish the physical bond you would
expect from a mother and her son. As the first act unfolds, we are
aware that King is always seemingly one step away from exploding
into violence. L. Peter Callendar brilliantly brings King to life
with his distinct voice and physical presence. Mister
(exceptionally played by Michael J. Asberry) is King’s sidekick and
truly his partner in crime. The two have aspirations to own a video
store that specializes in kung fu movies, but plot a burglary
scheme to help produce the additional money needed to make their
dream a reality. Nothing is going to stand in their way and we
watch, with bated breath, to make sure they are successful. We
laugh, smile, frown and cry through the acts and are shocked beyond
belief at the conclusion.

My favorite monologue in the play came from Tonya (incredibly
played by Tonia Jackson). Tonya is King’s wife, who, after
discovering she is pregnant, emotionally announces she is NOT
bringing another child into her grim world. She is adamant that she
is not going to grieve for a son who could be violently killed far
too soon or for a daughter who could wind up pregnant before her
high school graduation. She is especially clear about this because
she cannot count on King to stay out of jail.

Director Stanley Williams has produced and directed all of
August Wilson’s work and said “[His] work is very important to an
African-American theater.”

Sheldon Noel, a Washington D.C. resident in town with his wife
for the weekend, said, “King Hedley II was a very powerful and well
written play. The set was incredible. I enjoyed it tremendously
although at some points the performance seemed a little unbalanced.
Overall though, it was still powerful, engaging and entertaining.
For a small production it was very well done.”

King Hedley II is playing at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, in
San Francisco, through March 13. For ticket information, call (415)
474-8800. Group rates are available.