King Hedley II
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
The Matrix Theatre
Through February 12
This play by the late August Wilson is part of his 10-play series about the black experience in each of the decades of the 20th century. This one is set in the 1980s. The title character, King Hedley II (Esau Pritchett), is a proud but thwarted black man, whose face is bisected by a livid scar, the result of a razor attack. He responded by killing the man who cut him — and despite his claims that the attack was self-defense, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Now he lives in a house shared by his wife Tonya (Ciera Payton) and his feisty mother Ruby (Ella Joyce), who harbors some secrets of her own.
Hedley’s obsessed with finding ways to better his situation, but the whole world seems to be against him. Wife Tonya is pregnant, but she’s independent, and planning an abortion. This idea is repugnant to him, because he’s proud of his supposed father, King Hedley I, and looks forward to a son who would be King Hedley III. In an attempt to hold on to Tonya, he and his sidekick Mister (Jon Chaffin) carry out an armed robbery of a neighborhood store. But when he tries to give his share of the proceeds to Tonya, she refuses them. She can’t make him understand that what she really wants is to know he’ll be there for her, and not languishing in prison again.
There’s also an outsider who turns up on the scene: Elmore (Montae Russell) is a go-getter and con man who’s courting Ruby, despite the fact that he’s suffering from an unnamed, but probably terminal disease. She’s a former band singer, who hasn’t let middle age end her seductiveness, talent for flirtation, and interest in sexual matters, so she welcomes his attentions.
A sixth character hovers over the action: an eccentric old codger known as Stool Pigeon (Adolphus Ward), who is the neighborhood’s self-appointed preacher, spouting scripture at every turn. But his religion is a weird mishmash of the Old Testament, elements of voodoo, and oddball ideas of his own. He believes God controls the outcome of everything, but he’s equally aware that, on occasion, the Almighty can be a mean son-of-a-bitch.
The play’s final catastrophe is precipitated when Elmore cons King out of fifty dollars, and the conflict escalates as the two men try to out-macho one another. With both men armed with pistols, and Ruby carrying a neat little derringer given to her by Mister, someone is bound to get shot. And someone does.
August Wilson has a genius for writing pithy, funny, authentic-seeming dialog, and it enriches the flavor of his plays. But like that other giant of 20th century playwriting, Eugene O’Neill, he tends to write long, with digressive dialog that is too good to cut. So the nearly two-hour first act of this work sometimes feels like a long slog. But the audience remained attentive, and was clearly savoring the comedy.
Director Michele Shay gives the piece a faithful, handsomely detailed production, and she has cast it beautifully. As King, Pritchett is big and handsome, with a shaved head and a massive frame that make him perhaps more of a heroic figure than Wilson intended. But it’s a fine, impressive performance. Joyce’s Ruby is loving but feisty, with strong sexual undercurrents.
Payton’s Tonya is fiercely independent and knows her own mind. Russell’s Elmore is a flirt and a bit of a lecher, and possesses a ruthless determination to look out for number one. And Ward as Stool Pigeon is eloquent and sweetly daffy.
John Iacovelli’s set takes advantage of the Matrix’s wide stage to put the whole neighborhood on stage, complete with the ruins of a demolished house.
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood. Thur.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through February 12. augustwilsonkinghedleyii.eventbrite.com or 1- 800-838-3006 Ext. 1. Running time: 3 hours with one fifteen minute intermission.