Tuesday May 1 6:45 PM ET
'King Hedley II' Mesmerizing
By MICHAEL KUCHWARA, AP Drama Critic
NEW YORK (AP) - Playwright August Wilson always has been a superb storyteller. A natural yarn-spinner with a poetic, often otherworldly bent and a talent for creating unforgettable characters. Those gifts don't
fail him in ``King Hedley II,'' his latest - and most operatic - play, now making mesmerizing music on Broadway after a yearlong tour of regional theaters.
Wilson's melody here is the mournful sound of what might have been, a blues-tinged tale about a driven, almost demonic man. He's a petty thief named King who will stop at nothing for a better life. ``I set me
out a little circle and anything come inside my circle I say what happen and don't happen,'' proclaims King with a royal, godlike authority that the play's title implies.
King's circle of desperation can be found in the barren backyards of several crumbling Pittsburgh tenements, splendidly created by designer David Gallo in all their dusty decay on the stage of the Virginia
Theatre. It's the dilapidated arena where Hedley's life is tragically played out.
Right from the play's opening moments, there's a sense of doom. ``Everything done got broke up,'' says a demented prophet named Stool Pigeon, a garrulous neighbor who sees the truth in all the
craziness around him. ``Pieces flying everywhere. Look like it's gonna be broke up some more before it get whole again. If it ever do. Ain't no telling.''
That uncertainty threads its way through ``King Hedley II,'' the eighth play by Wilson in his mammoth, decade-by-decade look at the black experience in 20th-century America. This time, Wilson's drama,
which includes several of the characters from his earlier ``Seven Guitars,'' takes place in the mid-1980s. Ronald Reagan (news - web sites) is president. Drive-by shootings in poor neighborhoods are becoming common. And Aunt Esther, a
revered member of the black community, has died at what the other residents say is the age of 366.
``King Hedley II'' is a big play (its running time pushes three hours), filled with big emotions and big speeches. These aria-like monologues are rich in humor, heartbreak and the astonishing details that go
into creating real people.
The production has been somewhat rewritten, mostly recast and cut some 30 minutes since its premiere at Pittsburgh's Public Theater in December 1999. The drama is still a bit unwieldy, particularly in its final
moments, but Wilson has clarified and deepened the characters, and director Marion McClinton makes it all move with surprising grace.
King, played with messianic intensity by Brian Stokes Mitchell, is a con man who deals in stolen refrigerators and big dreams. He also did time for killing the man who slashed his face with a knife and left a scar
that is more than skin-deep.
Yet King sees a way out. With his good friend Mister (Monte Russell), the ex-convict plans to rob a jewelry store to get the money to open a video store.
The man also has to deal with two recalcitrant women in his life: his mother, Ruby, and his pregnant wife, Tonya, who is unsure she wants to keep the child. Tonya's concerns are articulated with a fierce
bitterness by Viola Davis, an actress of uncommon power and stage presence.
Ruby, portrayed by the lovely Leslie Uggams, abandoned her son years ago, along with her dreams of becoming a
club singer. Resentments have simmered and now she must not only confront him, but one of her old lovers as well, an unrepentant wheeler-dealer named Elmore.
Uggams brings an angry yet wistful sadness to Ruby, a woman of faded elegance who now knows what she never will have. It's also a pleasure to hear the performer sing again on a Broadway stage, even if it is only
a few bars of ``Red Sails in the Sunset.''
Elmore is the voice of opportunistic common sense in ``Hedley,'' a man who doesn't let anything stand in his way of getting what he wants. Naturally, he clashes with King. The exuberant Charles Brown
makes Elmore a sly charmer, a gambler whose earthy humor masks a murderous instinct that will be revealed before the end of the evening.
Despite the play's seriousness, humor abounds, particularly in the banter between Elmore and Mister and the wild blasphemies spouted by Stool Pigeon (the wonderful Stephen McKinley Henderson) about the Creator.
With his latest arrival on Broadway, Wilson has only the first and last decades of the 20th century to chronicle. From ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' to ``Fences'' to ``Jitney'' and all the
rest, it's been quite a journey. ``King Hedley'' will only add to that towering achievement.