May 2, 2001
'King Hedley II': The Agonized Arias of Everyman in Poverty and Pain
By BEN BRANTLEY
Voices go hurtling to heaven in August Wilson's "King Hedley II," gut- deep cries of confusion that keep pushing toward some elusive ecstasy of understanding.
A 35-year-old grandmother angrily imagines the impact of the random killing of a child on its mother. Two men of different generations slowly summon the heat that drove each to commit murder. A former nightclub singer speaks of the day she realized her hair had turned gray and of the sexual healing she sought in response.
In the grand, ungainly three-hour drama of an underclass in the age of Reagan that opened last night at the Virginia Theater, you will hear some of the finest monologues ever written for an American stage, speeches that build gritty, often brutal details into fiery patterns of insight. And when Viola Davis and Charles Brown, in the season's most dazzling supporting performances, claim the stage for their solos, you may feel the scorch of lightning.
The words are spoken of course, but these are big, operatic arias. You would need to look to a Verdi to find a more stirringly musical fusion of public crisis and private pain.
"King Hedley II," directed by Marion McClinton and starring the Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams, also resembles grand opera in less desirable ways. The plot that connects those magnificent arias is not always easy to understand or, when you do understand it, even credible.
Though Mr. McClinton has done an admirable job of sustaining a melodic fluidness throughout, the repetition of themes and phrases can wind up diluting their initial impact rather than strengthening it. Any drama that consistently aims as high as "Hedley" does, inviting comparison to everything from Aeschylus' House of Atreus to the Book of Job, is sometimes going to miss its target and thud to earth. The thuds in this New York premiere, it must be admitted, are as audible as the celestial high notes.
However flawed "Hedley" may be in its particulars, it has a collective ferocity and passion rarely found in new plays today. It is the latest, typically high-reaching installment in Mr. Wilson's rich cycle chronicling the black American experience in the 20th century, which includes splendid works like "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
"Hedley" seeks — and often finds — the heights of tragedy and mysticism in the life of the common man. Mind you, in the mid-1980's in the African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh known as the Hill, everyday life embraces assault, murder, robbery, broken families and an enduring fear of homelessness that is as much spiritual as literal. As a Jeremiah-like character called Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson) proclaims: "The people wandering all over the place. They got lost. They don't even know the story of how they got from tit to tat."
Tragedy and the common man is a phrase famously associated with "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller's epochal indictment of the American dream factory. In "Hedley," Mr. Wilson seems to be directly invoking Mr. Miller's masterpiece and pointing out with renewed vigor how an affluent, success-driven society maims those who fail by its standards.
Like "Salesman," Mr. Wilson's new drama features a man planting seeds in the shadowed dirt of an urban backyard (represented with wonderful, haunted lyricism by David Gallo's set and Donald Holder's lighting). This is the evening's title character (Mr. Mitchell), himself a salesman of sorts. He and his best friend, Mister (Monté Russell, in a nicely understated performance), are peddling stolen refrigerators, though with only feeble hopes of making the money they need to open a video store.
It says much about the universe portrayed here that when King and Mister later rob a jewelry store, it is not presented as a tense moment of climax but as another thwarted instance of the ordinary pursuit of getting and spending. Mr. Wilson is cosmic in his concerns, always stepping back to seek the larger destiny of a people who feel they keep slipping backward. To borrow again from the apocalypse-minded Stool Pigeon, "The people need to know the story."
The particular story that King must learn, though leavened by Mr. Wilson's canny ear for vernacular humor, takes much concentration and several leaps of faith for the audience to unravel. It involves the righting of a lie perpetrated by his mother, Ruby (Ms. Uggams), who has told King his father is indeed the man for whom he is named, a Jamaican immigrant introduced in "Seven Guitars," seen on Broadway in 1996.
It doesn't make much difference whether you know "Seven Guitars" or not. "Hedley" is generally weak on establishing personal, as opposed to universal, motives and never more so than with its title character. (In that sense it has not improved since I saw it in Pittsburgh more than a year ago.) King is said to worship this fictitious father, yet we have no strong psychological sense of that relationship, only of the symbolic weight of a muddled paternal legacy.
King is the evening's least satisfying figure, a sacrificial hero who is more a strapping archetype than a proper character, without the lovingly observed idiosyncrasies that make the others come alive. Mr. Mitchell, the charismatic star of the musicals "Ragtime" and "Kiss Me, Kate," uses his firm baritone beautifully to modulate Hedley's speeches of longing and resentment.
But there is no escaping the didactic feeling of these speeches or the sense that Mr. Mitchell is straining to create a hulking physical presence, with his open-legged stance and wide-armed gestures. Nor does the accomplished Mr. Henderson — part of the peerless ensemble of last season's production of Mr. Wilson's "Jitney" — quite avoid the tedium of the classic Wilsonian role of mad prophet in residence.
The ever-seductive Ms. Uggams provides an earthy matter-of-factness as a 62-year-old woman who has kept her sensual fires banked through years of loneliness, and generates a contrasting heavenly airiness in a lovely scene of redemption set to the strains of a waltz.
Mr. Brown, as Ruby's straying suitor, is superb in a performance that is equal parts peacock and bantam. He and Mr. Mitchell give the requisite weight and complexity to an astonishing dialogue that examines nothing less than the existential implications of what it means to take another life.
Ms. Davis, memorably seen in "Seven Guitars," is equally good here as Tonya, King's proud, pragmatic wife. In the evening's best monologue, the pregnant Tonya explains why she doesn't want to have the child. She turns the news of a boy's being killed in a drive-by shooting into a searing, moment-by-moment speculation on what the boy's mother must be going through.
The individual details are mundane: what the boy's favorite foods were, for example, and the difficulty of getting through to an undertaker whose business is thriving. But with Ms. Davis triumphantly riding the rhythms of Mr. Wilson's urgently cadenced prose, the speech assumes a glare that illuminates the entire life of one generation.
Like many of the monologues in "Hedley," it shifts gradually from self-centeredness to an ever-widening, connective empathy. That's the general movement of Mr. Wilson's extraordinary cycle of plays and of "Hedley" in particular.
Only God, as Stool Pigeon says, may strike the chords that reverberate through the scheme of life. But Mr. Wilson renders the human notes with more than a touch of divinity.
KING HEDLEY II