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You can have too much of a good thing, as August Wilson seems hellbent on establishing in the urban, jazz-inflected, quasi-Shakespearean tragedy he’s calling King Hedley II.
In an age when the benchmark for Broadway success is a 90-minute, three-character play about a blank canvas, and when D.C.’s leading regional theater thinks nothing of expending its energy and capital on enlarging a few fables into 80 patience-trying minutes of alleged “spectacle,” the Bard of Pittsburgh is one of the few contemporary playwrights who like to challenge audiences while giving them their money’s worth. That he doesn’t always know when to stop is a comparatively minor drawback. The man’s a theatrical godsend.
Wilson’s tale of a troubled ghetto prince, circa 1985—his eighth play in a cycle designed to chronicle the African-American experience in every decade of the 20th century—opens with a classical prologue (“The story’s been written—all that’s left now is the playing out”) and ends with a biblically inspired epilogue. In between, the author has crammed all the staples of epic drama—familial betrayal, Faustian bargains, shaggy-dog narratives, secrets, lies, laughter, grief, and sins paid for in the blood of innocent parties. Marion McClinton’s pre-Broadway staging outfits those elements in the trappings of grand opera, with actors who belt soliloquies as if they were arias while posing on a monstrous, blighted setting that looks downright post-apocalyptic. Designer David Gallo reportedly created the shattered houses and rubble-strewn yards of Pittsburgh’s Hill District on a not-quite-life-sized scale so the characters would appear larger than life, and the ploy works.
Their story, too, is enormous—in scope if not in specifics. An indulgently rambling tale of the frustrations of an angry man who eventually seems to have been rushing headlong into tragedy from his first onstage breath, King Hedley II consumes three-and-three-quarter hours of stage time and would undeniably be stronger at about two-thirds that length. Overstuffed with anecdotes—some germane to the narrative, others connected more tenuously—it remains narratively anemic until a melodramatic revelation in its closing half-hour gooses everyone into action.
Still, no one gives life to storytellers these days the way Wilson does, and he’s peopled the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower stage with a half-dozen vivid yarn-spinners. Chief among them is Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a crackpot/seer who collects newspapers—you can see them stacked to the ceiling when he opens his front door—and acts as a sort of neighborhood historian and moral conscience. “God’s a baaaad motherfucker,” he opines on more than one occasion before launching into a convoluted tale that illustrates that point.
Also loquacious is the title character, who once killed a man for calling him “Champ” instead of “King,” and who now makes his living selling stolen refrigerators. As played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, with a chin-to-forehead scar undercutting his matinee-idol looks, King is as troubling as he is troubled—the sort of guy who buys seeds so he can grow his wife some flowers, then surrounds the seedlings with barbed wire when he realizes they’re fragile. (Mitchell, who joined an already established ensemble after just three weeks of rehearsal, was still feeling his way in the role on opening night. A few of his mood swings seemed more abrupt and authorially dictated than felt, but presumably that will change as he settles in.)
If King seems hot-headed, he is justly unhappy about the life he’s been handed. His mother, Ruby (Leslie Uggams, looking regal and sounding earthy), went off to pursue a singing career when he was a toddler, abandoning him to the care of his Aunt Louise. Ruby’s recent return for Louise’s funeral (and a share of her small estate) has King thoroughly frosted. So does the decision of his pregnant wife, Tonya (Viola Davis), not to bring another child into the world. She’s understandably afraid that King will end up back in prison, and his bellicose response to every minor setback suggests that she’s right.
Among those setbacks, the demand by Mister (Monté Russell), King’s partner in the hot-fridge scam, for his share of their accumulated cash looms large. The two men have been saving up rent money so they can open a video store, but Mister now values new furniture over that dream deferred. Also adding tension, Elmore (Charles Brown), a silver-tongued con man and gambler, has returned after a long absence to insinuate himself into all their lives—romancing Ruby and threatening to tell one final tale that will turn King’s sense of self inside-out.
Wilson, one of the stage’s most gifted crafters of poetically naturalistic dialogue, may be a trifle casual about plotting in King Hedley II, but for imagery and understated eloquence, he’s at the height of his powers. Whereas the dialogue in Seven Guitars (which introduced several of this play’s characters) was blues-inflected, Hedley’s verbal riffs are indebted to the teasing, off-center rhythms of jazz. And this time, Wilson’s characters don’t just talk the talk; they talk about the talk (“A man is going to cry over a woman. That’s why she’s called a woman: She brings woe”). Let something important need saying, however, and they can be wonderfully direct. Tonya to King, for instance, about their life together: “I don’t need things; I saw what they cost and I can live without them.” Or King to his wife about her fear of impending motherhood: “You’ve got him in a casket already, and he ain’t even been born.”
The problem is that much of the evening’s chatter is as repetitive as it is evocative. By midway through the second act, so many stories have been told that the crucial ones have begun to blur. Grant, for instance, that King’s anger at a Sears clerk who can’t find the photos he’s brought in for developing says worlds about a protagonist who believes that he’s invisible to society at large. But doesn’t it essentially say the same thing as his anger about someone calling him “Champ” instead of “King”? Or about folks who feign politely not to see his scar? Presumably, it’s helpful that the script’s sins are mostly ones of excess—reiteration of points already made, rather than actions left unexplained or unmotivated. Wilson and McClinton should be able to clean things up with judicious nips and tucks. The ratio of reported action to visible action on stage is so high that, without sacrificing much in the way of character exposition, they could almost begin the evening after intermission.
Of course, if they did, those barbed-wire-protected seedlings wouldn’t have time to grow. And although King Hedley II would certainly benefit from editing, I’m wary about calling the evening overlong simply for violating contemporary attention spans. It sure is easier to sit through than most of what’s cluttering up movie screens at the moment. And how many other shows—of whatever length—can be said to offer a solid couple of hours of either absorbing drama or plain-spoken eloquence, let alone both? CP