“Black lives matter.” That’s the succinct message that’s arisen from protests of the past several months.
It’s a rallying cry, too, from August Wilson’s powerful King Hedley II — one that comes at length, with passion and compounded intensity.
The 2001 play, the ninth in Wilson’s ten part Pittsburgh Cycle, depicts a time in the mid 1980s. But the angst and frustration of a people trapped in poverty and bleak prospects is every bit as timely as today’s news. The peerless current production at Arena Stage shakes the very foundations, refusing that its message goes unheard.
The title character with the royal name dreams he has a halo over him; instead, it’s a near-constant storm cloud. Fresh out of prison, his options limited, his face slashed with an ugly scar, crime seems the only way to get a possible foothold. Refusing to give up, he shows his optimism by planting seeds amid the cracks of the concrete, a place where others see just gravel and some step on the seeds just as they step on his hopes.
…harrowing stories told in gripping, raging monologues…
The towering performance of the character by Bowman Wright seems even doubly so since his last ringing performance at Arena was as Martin Luther King Jr. in The Mountaintop. With that, going from one King to another as it were, the extremes of American black experience rile him to the verge of combustion.
And though he may act like a man alone in a world stacked against him, there is a tight-knit community constantly around him: his wife, his momma, his friend, a neighborhood sage and a con man who is vying to be his stepdad.
In director Timothy Doublas’ remarkable and knowing production, all six are on stage at all times, even if they have retreated into their corners, in their homes or on their stoops or on their thrones made of saved newspapers.
And while Wilson’s absorbing drama seems made out of harrowing stories told in gripping, raging monologues, the others are always around, bearing witness or otherwise close at hand.
The action seems incremental amid the speeches, and it involves some penny-ante sales of guns and refrigerators, a desperate robbery and the burial of a cat. No matter what happens, Wilson seems to be saying, can inch them away from their fates. That kind of frustration — and that it speaks so clearly to the present — speaks eloquently to the frustration of black America.
King Hedley II is said to be the darkest play in the cycle — which explores 20th African-American life one decade at a time. It may also be one of the longest.
It begins with the declarations of a neighbor who is either highly spiritual or a little crazy. Andre De Sheilds, his greyed Afro parted in the middle, embodies the role.
E. Faye Butler is formidable as Ruby, a character previously a part of Seven Guitars and who reminisces a bit on her past life as a singer. As her suitor Michael Anthony Williams well fills the role of hustler. KenYatta Rogers’ turn as Hedley’s pal is crucial for adding a touch of lightness to the sometimes grim proceedings.
Jessica Frances Dukes plays a woman who is trying to make her way in the world by doing her work and gets a moment to say her piece as well.
It all plays out on the broken concrete of Tony Cisek’s set, scattered with broken chairs and broken lives, with huge shards of concrete precariously dangling above them, like big chunks of fate, to be dropped at any moment.
Allen Lee Hughes lighting design is subtle and effective, relied upon to relate some of its most climactic moments.
Perhaps more than any other Washington stage, Arena seems split between widely pleasing musicals and challenging drama. King Hedley II deserves as long a run as any. It will certainly stay with you long after you leave this bleak corner of Pittsburgh’s Hill district.
Advisory: Adult language, even in the prayers.
Running Time: Three hours with one 15 minute intermission.
King Hedley II continues through March 9, 2015 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available from 202-488-3300 or online.