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[NYT Review Hedley]

King Hedley II05/03/2001 - Updated 07:18 AM ET

It's good to be Wilson's 'King'

By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — It's amazing how quickly time can pass when you're transfixed by beauty.

Only after the curtain fell on King Hedley II ( out of four), which opened last Sunday at Broadway's Virginia Theatre, did I realize that three hours had flown by since I had last checked my watch.

Hedley is the latest in August Wilson's cycle of dramas tracing the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Of course, these works aren't exclusively about black life any more than Tennessee Williams' were exclusively about Southern life. What makes Wilson America's greatest living playwright — aside from his gift for dialogue, which blends searing poetry with uncompromising realism — is the bracing humanism with which he provides insight into the struggles and aspirations of all individuals.

The struggles and aspirations of Hedley's title character are rooted in an earlier Wilson play, Seven Guitars, set in 1948, when the first King Hedley and his wife, Ruby, are expecting a child. The new play picks up in 1985 Pittsburgh and finds the son revisiting the sins of his father. Having completed a seven-year sentence for murder, a crime that the senior Hedley also committed, Hedley II is trying to find redemption in a new life. He plants flower seeds in the tiny yard of his dilapidated home — where he now lives with Ruby and his pregnant second wife, Tonya — and dreams of being an angel.

If you detect some biblical imagery, you're right on target. Hedley is a flagrantly spiritual work, complete with a Scripture-quoting, truth-loving neighbor whom Ruby calls Stool Pigeon and a seductive con man, Elmore, who evokes a certain serpent in wooing Ruby and tempting her son.

As its title suggests, Hedley also is a work of almost Shakespearean scope, addressing themes that Wilson has confronted throughout his work — the need for faith and honor in an unfair society, how a man's pride can come into conflict with his self-interest and responsibility to others — in grand strokes.

Fortunately, he has an able director in longtime colleague Marion McClinton, who brings the same gorgeous stringency to this production as he did to Wilson's Jitney last season, and a splendid cast. Brian Stokes Mitchell gives a powerhouse performance in the title role, capturing the hubris of a classic tragic hero while making the character utterly, shatteringly human. Leslie Uggams is equally sublime as his mother, relaying both Ruby's enduring elegance and her gritty weariness.

Viola Davis brings a perfect balance of tenderness and willful strength to Tonya, one in a long line of wise and virtuous women who suffer for and with their men in Wilson's plays. Stephen McKinley Henderson is gloriously righteous as Stool Pigeon, and Charles Brown masterfully conveys Elmore's slick charm and feral duplicity.

If the characters in Hedley allude to archetypes, they never conform to simple stereotypes. As always, Wilson paints a three-dimensional portrait of humans in general, and black Americans in particular. Let's be grateful that he still has two decades of the last century left to chronicle — and that a new century lies ahead, ripe for his exploration.


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