King Hedley II
Review by Philip Fisher
If William Shakespeare had lived in black America in the 20th century, he would have written plays like those of August Wilson. King Hedley II is a tragedy of truly Shakespearean proportions with a superb structure, beautiful language and, in this production by a Paulette Randall, tremendous acting.
It will be a major surprise if this production does not transfer to a West End theatre for a what should be a long and very successful run.
The play is set in a shared back yard occupied by the family of King himself and his slightly mad, bible-bashing neighbour, Stool Pigeon (Stefan Kalipha). This is a very dangerous city to live in. Everybody carries guns, even the wome, and, as in the Wild West, life expectancy is short and the occupants have to make the most of things while they can. Not everyone can live to 66 like Aunt Esther, and even she has died now.
King is living with his mother, Ruby (Pat Bowie) and his wife, Tonya (Rakie Ayola). Each of these people has suffered the loss of a spouse and there is an inevitability about the paths that their own lives and those of their children will take. As Tonya says, this is not the world into which she would like to bring a child.
In Pittsburgh in the 1980s, it is hard to be black. As King says, in some ways, the inhabitants were almost better off as slaves as their forefathers had been. They have to work on a minimal wages with a hope of a pay rise at some time in the future but no certainty. This drives them onto the streets and it is very obvious that the only way in which King and his best friend, Mister (Eddie Nestor), will ever be able to save up the $10,000 that they need to open a video store is to rise above the law. As King says "white man got all the money".
Into the relatively settled lives of King's family returns the wonderfully prophetic, scandalously happy con man, Elmore, played with tremendous charm and wit by Joseph Marcell. This is a man who has battled with King's father over the hand of his mother. It is inevitable that he would then desert her and would continue doing so for the rest of their lives. Even at 67, he will still break her heart once more.
The standout performance is from Nicholas Monu in the title role. He shows the pain of a man who is impotent to improve his life and who has precognition about his own doom as he dreams of walking around with a halo on his head. This is truly a Latter-day Saint, a man who might be allowed to rise to heaven despite having committed murder.
This is an incredibly rich poetic play. It is an allegory about black existence and is filled with clever metaphors and beautiful symbolism. This is personified in the backyard in front of clapboard houses, designed by Nicky Turner, by the growth of seedlings into shoots under barbed wire next to the grave of a black (no coincidence) cat. There is nothing more that you can say about the hard life that August Wilson has so beautifully recreated in this, his eighth "decade" play.
We must eagerly await his vision of the 1990s. In the mean time, catch King Hedley if you can.