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The last time burly Bowman Wright per-formed at Arena Stage, he played a very different King: Two years ago he showed us the private, interior side of Martin Luther King Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, set the evening before the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis.
Now Wright is the title character in August Wilson’s 1999 King Hedley II, a man who would appear to have little in common with the reverend who gave his life to the cause of racial justice through peaceful protest. Wilson’s King—that’s the character’s first name—isn’t educated or eloquent, and he regards violence as an unchangeable fact of the hard world he lives in, as essential to his survival as air. He insists he doesn’t regret killing the man who cut his face, leaving a prominent scar as his dominant feature; only that it sent him to prison for seven years. If he kills again, he swears, it won’t cost him a day. “The next motherfucker who fucks with me is gonna get War World III!” he thunders at the end of the first act, too enraged even to get the sequence of the words right.
The show had opened, 95 minutes earlier, with King on his hands and knees, fussing over some seeds in a barren little patch of what he says is dirt but looks to us like gravel. (Everything in Tony Cisek’s in-the-round set is the color of cracked concrete. Fourteen jagged slabs of the stuff hang from the ceiling.) That was before he learned his girlfriend, Tonya (Jessica Frances Dukes), is pregnant. Already a grandmother at 35, and trapped in a neighborhood where many kids don’t live long enough to become adults, she doesn’t want King’s baby. Subtlety is as irrelevant to what Wilson is up to here as it is in Greek tragedies written 2,500 years earlier.
And King Hedley II feels very much like an ancient tragedy: in its imposing density and its grandiloquence; in the value it places on dreams and prophecies; in its reliance on loud, athletic performances; and in the sense that it provides more nourishment than pleasure. Many critics have dismissed Othello as a silly play about a handkerchief over the last four centuries, so I don’t feel too thick for finding Hedley’s bloody denouement to be less of an existential gut-punch than a clumsy PSA about firearm safety. There’s still plenty to admire in the three-and-a-quarter hours (including one 15-minute intermission) that build to that deflating moment.
It’s impossible to take your eyes off Bowman, for one thing. He’s volatile and unpredictable, undergirding his explosive anger with inarticulate sorrow. Kenyatta Rogers is almost as good as Mister, King’s fast-talking partner in petty crime. They’re selling stolen refrigerators and pooling their earnings in the hope of opening a video store together. (The lack of glamour involved in moving kitchen appliances as opposed to TVs is one of the scant sources of humor that briefly punctuate the overriding gloom.) Michael Anthony Williams has a serpentine physicality and delivery as Elmore, a 66-year-old hustler in a three-piece suit and a Stetson who has returned to the neighborhood to rekindle his long-ago relationship with King’s nosy, noisy mother, Ruby (E. Faye Butler).
That relationship was addressed in Seven Guitars, set 37 years earlier and staged locally by No Rules Theatre Company last fall. Chronologically, Hedley is the penultimate chapter in Wilson’s 10-play cycle examining the lives of black Americans in each decade of the 20th century. Like all but one of the others it takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District; the year is 1985, with unemployment high and violent crime rampant. But knowing all that context isn’t likely to make the show feel any less forbidding.
Ronald Reagan shoulders much of the blame for allowing the inner cities to rot during this era, but Hedley assigns divine origin to the abundant misery: “God’s a bad motherfucker,” says André De Shields as the memorable Stool Pigeon—the play’s wizened prophet—again and again. He’s the first to speak, reporting the news and reciting Scripture to the others. (All the players remain onstage for the duration of the show, sitting off to the side if they’re not part of the scene.) He’s also the one who sets the piece on its final, tragic heading, giving King a machete that belonged to King’s father, and which he used to kill Floyd Barton, another Seven Guitars character. Nobody knows what he’s supposed to do with it, but at least it occurs to Stool Pigeon and to Mister to ask the question. When Elmore sells Mister a derringer with a mother-of-pearl handle (“that’s better than pearl,” he explains), nobody bothers.
As tough a sit as Hedley is, it’s a more re-warding evening than Cherokee, another sorta-comedy about two couples from Lisa D’Amour. Her Detroit, which Woolly did a year and a half ago, looked at a pair of recovering addicts and a pair of felled-by-the-recession professionals whose backyards adjoin. It eventually got lost in the woods, but it was funnier and more trenchant than Cherokee, which takes two pairs of Houstonites—one white and affluent, the other black and closer to the financial bone—and packs them off to a North Carolina campsite where strange but not terribly interesting events unfold.
“I just want something to happen—something I have to endure,” John, an unhappy oil executive (Paul Morella) tells his schoolteacher spouse, Janine (Jennifer Mendenhall). Newlyweds Traci (Erica Chamblee) and Mike (Thomas W. Jones II) have come on the trip with the intent of conceiving a child, a pursuit that spares them conversations like this. When they can’t figure out how to light the stove they’ve brought from REI, the foursome opt for the buffet at the casino on the nearby reservation, where they befriend Josh, a young American Indian who waits tables and performs in a Disneyfied revue about the history of his tribe.
Jason Grasl, the actor playing Josh, is new to Woolly; he’s strapping and handsome, and he wrings laughs from D’Amour’s not-quite jokes in a way that seems to elude the others. But the novelty of his presence isn’t enough to keep the coddled-suburbanites-go-native scenario from feeling overly familiar, or to make D’Amour’s watery observations about code switching profound. The other Woolly newcomer, Chamblee, finds herself rocked by a series of revelations about her husband, but plays them all with the same mild alarm. (The other three actors are all good without ever doing anything surprising.)
The movie-style opening titles identify D’Amour as a white lady of European extraction, which is funnier and less ambiguous than anything that happens during the following two hours. Aaron Fisher uses projections to give establishing shots of the campground and some corny superimposed effects to put the two couples inside the casino. The stagehands wear an approximation of park ranger uniforms. Daniel Ettinger’s set and Colin K. Bills’ lighting design use bark-colored pylons and a pattern of leafy shadows to evoke the mighty deciduous trees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But for all that sylvan atmosphere, Cherokee doesn’t take us anywhere we haven’t been.
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $40-$90. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org
Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. $45-$88. (202) 393-3939. woolly-mammoth.net