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‘King Hedley II’ at Court offers abundant rewards for the August Wilson faithful

With its many allusions to Wilson’s past work, Ron OJ Parson’s heavy but humorous production might fluster those new to the playwright

Dexter Zollicoffer (left) and Kelvin Roston Jr. in a scene from “King Hedley II” at Court Theatre.
Dexter Zollicoffer (left) and Kelvin Roston Jr. in a scene from “King Hedley II” at Court Theatre.
Michael Brosilow

To see the director Ron OJ Parson completing August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” — the late playwright’s collection of 10 interconnected plays about the African American experience in the 20th century, each set in a different decade — is a momentous occasion. That’s true even if the 1980s-set “King Hedley II,” the last of the plays for Parson to check off his list, is one of the less focused entries in Wilson’s impressive project.

Parson has been exploring Wilson’s undertaking for many years now, at theaters across the country; starting in 2006, he’s previously staged seven of the 10 plays at Hyde Park’s Court Theatre, which has committed to finishing the cycle as well. Apart from, perhaps, the directors Lloyd Richards and Marion McClinton — who between them worked with Wilson on the premiere productions of the bulk of his plays — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more well-versed in Wilson’s themes and rhythms.

The announcement that Court would be staging “King Hedley II,” the only play in the cycle that Parson had yet to tackle, qualified as breaking news for fans of Wilson’s work: One of the playwright’s preeminent interpreters — and the ad hoc acting company Parson has built up around his many interrogations of Wilson’s plays — would be engaging with their final first.

“Hedley” offers plenty to engage with. The specter of mortality, whether it’s the fresh grief of new losses or the reverberations of decades-old killings, hangs heavy over the characters here; four of them brandish guns at some point, and the only question is which one will go off first. Yet despite its many dark tones, it also brings more raucous humor to the table than some of Wilson’s more somber tragedies.

A.C. Smith and TayLar star in “King Hedley II” directed by Ron OJ Parson at Court Theatre.
A.C. Smith and TayLar star in “King Hedley II” directed by Ron OJ Parson at Court Theatre.
Michael Brosilow

The play also contains a surfeit of stunning, operatic monologues, in which those same characters give voice to deep-seated frustrations and impossible pain. Yet those speeches, for all their self-contained power, can be haphazardly stitched into the larger narrative of the play. With roots that reach deep into the shared mythos of the Century Cycle, “Hedley” might be the least accessible piece of the August Wilson puzzle for newcomers.

“Hedley,” which had its premiere in 1999 at Pittsburgh’s Public Theatre, is closely tied to Wilson’s 1940s entry, “Seven Guitars,” which debuted at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre five years earlier.

The title character, played here by the soulful Kelvin Roston Jr., is trying to reboot his life after serving seven years in prison for killing a man who he believed to have insulted his honor. King’s methods for acquiring the capital to rebuild put him at odds with his wife, Tonya (Kierra Bunch), who finds herself pregnant at 35 even as her unseen teenage daughter is about to make her a grandmother. (Bunch gets one of the play’s finest arias, imagining the point-of-view of a mother in the neighborhood whose son was just killed in a drive-by shooting.)

Stool Pigeon (Dexter Zollicoffer, top) and Kelvin Roston Jr. as the title character in a scene from “King Hedley II” at Court Theatre.
Stool Pigeon (Dexter Zollicoffer, top) and Kelvin Roston Jr. as the title character in a scene from “King Hedley II” at Court Theatre.
Michael Brosilow

King is the son of Ruby (a magnetic TayLar), one of two characters who reappears from “Seven Guitars.” In the earlier play, Ruby was the young, pregnant niece of another character, Louise; here we learn that Ruby left her child to be raised by Louise, now deceased, while she pursued a career as a singer. Ruby and King’s neighbor, here referred to as Stool Pigeon (Dexter Zollicoffer), was known in “Seven Guitars” as a musician named Canewell.

Sharp-eyed devotees of Wilson’s work, and particularly of Parson’s productions at Court, are in for some rewards. Ronald L. Conner endearingly embodies King’s amiable pal Mister Carter — the son of Red Carter, who Conner played in Court’s 2014 staging of “Seven Guitars.” And if I’m not mistaken, a very distinctive prop from Parson’s 2015 production of “Gem of the Ocean,” the opening chapter of the Century Cycle, makes a quiet reappearance here. Both Roston and the wily actor A.C. Smith, who shows up here as Ruby’s recurring suitor, are longtime members of Parson’s August Wilson repertory company.

I do worry that those for whom “Hedley” is their introduction to Wilson’s cycle might feel a little lost. Even leaving aside the mentions of Aunt Ester, the mystical matriarch who’s referenced throughout Wilson’s century and who we’re told here has finally passed away at 366 years of age, “Hedley” expects a familiarity with Wilson’s larger project that its strongest pieces — “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” — don’t require.

But even if it’s more discursive than other entries in Wilson’s oeuvre, “Hedley” still has its writer’s Chekhovian drive and lyrical pulse. And it’s a safe bet that Parson and company will keep giving us frequent opportunities to study Wilson’s work.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.