Congo Square Theatre at Athenaeum Theatre. By August Wilson. Directed by Daniel Bryant. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 45mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Oliver Sava
It may look like the end of the world, but it’s just the 1980s. An apocalyptic drama about African-Americans trying to survive in the urban wasteland of Pittsburgh, August Wilson’s King Hedley II explores a time of unrelenting violence among the disenfranchised. Disheveled hoarder Stool Pigeon (Anthony Irons) preaches of the coming Armageddon while his neighbor, King (Ron Conner), tries to get a seed to grow in the mound of dirt next to his trashcans; ultimately death will prove a more powerful force than life.
The ninth installment in Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, King Hedley II is one of the writer’s bleakest works, showing how a race of people turns on each other after suffering years of social inequality. It’s a theme that comes up often in Wilson’s work, and when King explodes at Elmore (Trinity Murdock) for stepping on the dirt next to his seed, there are clear shades of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson’s 1920s-set play that features a climactic moment in which a character is killed for stepping on another man’s new shoes.
(King Hedley II also shares a major connection with Wilson’s Seven Guitars, which introduces King’s two mother figures as well as his namesake; Court Theatre closed an exceptional revival of Seven Guitars last month.)
The moment of black-on-black violence in Ma Rainey occurs because a black man can’t act on his aggression towards the white man who cheats him, and his misdirected anger costs the life of an innocent. There aren’t any white characters in King Hedley II explicitly revealing discrimination; instead, that downtrodden, ineffective mentality of the pre–Civil Rights Movement era has become ingrained in masculine black culture to create a pervasive environment of hostility.
At almost three hours, King Hedley II may sound like a daunting endeavor, but Wilson’s monologues work like songs in a musical, carrying the viewer through intense sensory experiences that are finished in a flash. Director Daniel Bryant has a wonderful understanding of the emotional journey in these speeches, and the actors keep the momentum of the production speeding along by hitting those beats with intensity and clarity.
Conner gives a beautifully textured performance as scarred ex-con King, a man with incredible enthusiasm and willpower but focused in the wrong direction, selling stolen refrigerators and holding on to old grudges when he has the potential for so much more. King has a fierce energy that's balanced by the smooth, relaxed nature of his best friend/partner in crime Mister (Marc Rogers) and the scattered mania of Stool Pigeon, which manages to be a major source of both comedy and foreboding.
The two women of the play, King’s mother Ruby (TaRon Patton) and his girlfriend Tonya (an outstanding Tiffany Addison), struggle with their responsibilities as mothers in this world of death and despair: Ruby in her uncertainty regarding how to care for a son she abandoned as a child, and Tonya in her fear of bringing a new life into this dystopian environment. Patton blossoms during Ruby’s transition from weary mother to vivacious lover once Elmore returns, taking advantage of the opportunity to reclaim the youth that's long past.
Addison gives a remarkable performance as Tonya moves in the opposite direction and matures with each new scene, growing further from King as she comes to realizations about their future together. She has an impeccable handle on Wilson’s language and makes the dialogue sound spontaneous and completely natural, which is difficult in a show with this many heightened monologues.
The tension is turned up considerably once Elmore enters the picture to undermine King’s authority in his domain. There’s a bristly relationship between King and Elmore from the very beginning, and much of the show’s suspense comes from waiting for the moment when the two men will finally let loose. King warns that it will be World War III when someone crosses him next, and while countries still stand when the lights go out, the world of these characters is rocked forever.