‘King Hedley II’: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…

Portland Playhouse's intense production seizes August Wilson's most despairing play

Vin Shambry and Peter Macon in “King Hedley II” at Portland Playhouse/Brud Giles

King Hedley II has a long, nasty scar running down the side of his face and a scowl across his brow that is just about as nasty and just about as long.  As played by Peter Macon in Portland Playhouse’s fierce version of “King Hedley II,” King’s shoulders are wide, his arms are thick and his mind takes strange leaps from tenderness to violence and back again. Sometimes he’s the model of reasonableness, and at others, especially when he’s brandishing a machete, he’s untouched by reason at all.

So, yes, life with King isn’t easy for his wife Tonya or mother Ruby or even his pal Mister. Not that he threatens them directly, but when a dark mood overcomes him and he takes off through the gate at the back of the house, it’s impossible to guess what mayhem he’s about to unleash. He’s a hard man to trust.

He has his reasons. August Wilson’s plays are great at experimenting with the human psyche under extreme pressure, a tension he generates by catching it between racism and poverty, systematically removing hope plot complication by plot complication. But “King Hedley II” is especially dark, and King himself on the edge of disaster for the entire play. There’s no compromise in King or the play, and as it begins the great Wilson matriarch, Aunt Ester, has died. Wilson plays don’t come any sadder.

And so, when the grace notes occur—the little glints of light, the good old stories, the flights that take us and the other characters away from this dismal reality—they feel like a sudden breath of fresh air. Just don’t get used to them.

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King has killed a man and served time for it. Sure, maybe the man had it coming (remember that scar?), and as a ex-con, he tries to put together a living as well as he can. His legit job is working on a wrecking crew (perfect job!), and he’s saving up to open a video store (Dear King, we should talk about that!) with Mister. In the meantime, though, he’s tracking the cousin of the guy he killed and plotting a robbery, also with Mister. The cousin has threatened him, he’s heard, and King’s not about to let THAT stand. Even the rumor of that. And that jewelry store is ripe for the picking. There’s also the matter of those refrigerators of dubious provenance.

It’s Macon’s genius to somehow make all of this sound natural, a plausible diversification for someone in his position.

Wilson’s genius is to make “King Hedley II” capacious enough to contain the long stories everyone unwinds during its course. Some of these are connected to the stories in “Seven Guitars,” which maybe you saw earlier this fall at Artists Repertory Theatre, in which case this production is going to seem almost like a sequel, or if not a sequel exactly, a familiar adjacency. For the rest of us, it’s just storytelling of a high order: how King’s mother Ruby met her lover Elmore back in the day, for example, how Elmore came to know King’s father, Tonya’s struggles with her daughter, Ruby’s days as a singer (where she pops up in “Seven Guitars”), Mister’s aggravations at the nail factory. I could go on.

Even told urgently, as they sometimes are, these stories still have a ruminative aspect to them. We picture them in our heads, unfolding slowly, and we watch the storytellers for traces of those stories—on their faces, in their actions, on their way of living life on this particular poor block in Pittsburgh.

Do these stories add up to anything in particular. Not really. They give us a sense of the people we are watching, where they came from, why they love how and whom they love. If there’s a lesson in “King Hedley II,” it’s just that we don’t escape our stories: We recall the beautiful ones fondly and learn to live with the bad ones (or not). One more: That ALL of us have stories.  We are rich in stories, in fact. And in the African American section of Pittsburgh where Wilson’s plays all start, the stories pile on stories, as though Wilson wanted to save every square inch of them. Maybe he did.

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John Cothran and Monica Parks/Brud Giles

Grace notes? Everyone in “King Hedley II” has them, really.

Stool Pigeon (Victor Mack) is one long grace note, really, channeling Biblical injunctions and the teaching of Aunt Ester, until we aren’t sure whether he’s just crazy or crazily enlightened. We see Tonya’s (Ramona Lisa Alexander) in her concern for the people around her. Ruby’s come in Monica Parks’ smile as she remembers her days singing and when Elmore strings a necklace around her neck. With Elmore (John Cothran Jr.), maybe it’s just the way he carries himself, lightly and confidently, and sports his fedora. And Mister (Vin Shambry)? Maybe it’s his capacity to laugh at himself.

Which leaves us with King himself and Macon, just as doomed as he was when he played “Macbeth” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though perhaps with a bit more breath, a few more strands of character to explore. His grace here is his commitment to Tonya, I think, so complete it’s almost frightening, and yet… insufficient, as grace so often is when it runs into a buzzsaw.

I liked the way these actors found each other on the small Portland Playhouse stage and gave each other space. I even liked how they helped each other out when one of them got a little lost in one of those long stories (on opening night, Shambry proved especially adept at this rescue… bravo!). We are separate in our stories; we come together to make new ones.

Of course, theater is utopian in this way, or at least aspires to be. Even when the stories are sad, the actors tell them together. The drift of “King Hedley II” is tragic, yet a certain underlying geniality exists beneath the tears.

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Peter Macon and Ramona Lisa Alexander/Brud Giles

If I were going to criticize “King Hedley II,” I might point out that it seems far more concerned with internal concerns than the crack-damaged ‘80s during which it’s set. And I also might suggest that the ending comes—abruptly.

But by this time, we know Wilson, right? We know his concerns, appreciate his stories for what they are. We don’t wish for Wilson’s take on gang-bangers. That’s not who he was. That wasn’t his subject. His great cycle spreads out over a hundred years, but it isn’t a newsreel. It’s a river that supports these particular connected lives, turning them over, giving the least of them value, yes, even the hardest knocking one of them all, King.

I have the feeling that “King Hedley II” is going to ripen during its run at Portland Playhouse, not that director Jade King Carroll hasn’t done a fine job because she has. But the longer the actors live with these lives the deeper they’re going to get, the more they are going to appreciate the gravity of this play, the stakes it plays for.

I have to say, though, that I can’t imagine much more intensity than Macon brought to opening night, that scowl, the set of his jaw, eyes measuring up the situation, a tiger in a cage.

NOTES

Marty Hughley profitably interviewed Peter Macon for The Oregonian.

My old colleague Mr. Hughley also reviewed the show. His patience ran thin at the length of the play overall and some of the longer monologues. “But the play has so many speeches by so many characters, expounding at such length about so many things, you might need a flow chart to track all the narrative hints and thematic connections.” I take his point. I think those monologues are at least as important as the present-tense narrative to Wilson, and that can be a dramatic problem. It wasn’t for me, but maybe I’m a sucker for a long story?

Aaron Scott of Portland Monthly also likes the production though not the length. And here’s Win Goodbody’s 50-word review from Portland Theatre Scene.

Bob Hicks reviewed “Seven Guitars” for ArtsWatch, and it really is worth another look.

 

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