A playgoer often reaps big dividends by attending the theater with low expectations. Exhibit A: August Wilson's King Hedley II, currently being staged by the Black Rep. We all know that Wilson, who died last October, was a gifted playwright. But we also know that his dramas are too long and verbose. And we know that when King Hedley II opened on Broadway in 2001, it received the least enthusiastic reviews, and eked out the shortest run, of any Wilson play to that time. So a viewer could be forgiven for attending this St. Louis premiere more out of duty than enthusiasm. But that would be a mistake, because there's much to be enthusiastic about. This is a vigorous, sinewy production of a fertile drama.
King Hedley II plays out in Reagan-era 1985, but the time might just as easily be last week. The script depicts an America in which prejudice runs free and escalating expenses can reduce a man to impotence or worse, to action. King (who is not any kind of royalty; that's simply his name) wants to open a video store; there's a real market for kung fu movies in his Pittsburgh neighborhood. But before he can act on his dream, he needs money to pay the light bill, money for the gas bill, money to purchase food for his family. Short of criminal behavior, there's no getting out of the spiraling hole into which he has fallen. "I used to be worth twelve hundred dollars during slavery," King says in frustration. "Now I'm worth $3.35 an hour. I'm going backwards. Everyone else moving forward."
But every man is king of his own castle, and King prizes the patch of dirt in his backyard where he strives to make seeds grow a stark contrast to the abortion his wife seeks. Many of this play's themes King's evolving clarification of manhood, his wife's threatened termination of pregnancy are reminiscent of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Even King's measly plant seeds might have been inspired by the feeble plant that serves as that 1959 play's symbol of hope. But there are other parallels here, to Hamlet and even to Oedipus Rex. It's the balance between the domestic and the classic, between the immediate and the eternal, that keeps this script so constantly absorbing.
Sometimes a viewer doesn't have a clue as to what the director has done. But here you can sense the imprint of Ed Smith's thumb in the ebb and flow of every scene. The play runs three hours, but Smith ensures that it's never dull. Even as he controls everything occurring onstage (a screen door that slams like a gunshot), he gives the actors the space to create their characters, so that a sense of life permeates an evening that, like any aspiring tragedy, leads to doom.
The cast is outstanding. Dennis Lebby might as well put a patent on characters like Stool Pigeon, the Bible-spouting old buzzard whose home shares the backyard with King. Bianca Laverne Jones brings a quiet fervor to King's despairing wife who doesn't want to bring a child into such a violent world. Late in Act Two, watch how Starletta DuPois, who portrays King's surrogate mother, sits on her back stoop and, without a word, physically shrivels as events begin to careen out of control. Marvelous. Geoffrey D. Williams, who functions as the Horatio to King's Hamlet, suffuses the evening with a lightness of tone that helps to prevent the pace from slowing down. As the dapper clothes horse who has taken up with King's mother (more shades of Hamlet), A.C. Smith gives another towering performance, laden with charm, menace and even a blunt panache. What a remarkable presence he brings to the stage.
So too does Ron Himes in the title role. King is so embittered and humorless, he runs the risk of wearing out his welcome early on. But Himes succeeds in transforming limitations into assets. His blistering work here is fierce and impassioned. No way does Himes believe he's performing in lesser Wilson. This lofty production just might make a believer out of you too.