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A CurtainUp Review
King Hedley II


If you want to beat the system, you got to make your own rules.
---August Wilson

Monté Russell, Brian Stokes Mitchell
M. Russell & B. Mitchell
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
As August Wilson continues his visits to the decades of the 20th Century, the Hill District of Pittsburgh becomes acquainted with the House of Atreus. The inevitable tragedy of King Hedley II brings us closer to the present than any of the previous works in this canon -- it's set in the Reagan 80's, the last decade of the century is one of but two that Wilson has yet to unveil -- but its powerful pull is as monumental, as mythic and as complex as any. It is not a work, be forewarned, that leaves us much about which to be hopeful, but that's as it should be.

It's toward the end of the first act that one recognizes that in Hedley we have a latter-day Hamlet. It's an awareness brought on not so much from Brian Stokes Mitchell's King Hedley, but by his wife, Tonya (Viola Davis), whose entreaty to her husband (I'll call it her "Be a Man" speech) eloquently embodies the seemingly inextricable, almost genetic core of crime, violence and failure that defines the fate of black men in inner city America, and the concomitant reaction of its women. With Davis's blistering potency, memorable in every respect, it recalls Polonius's "Neither a borrower nor a lender be", and may well be the most powerful female monologue in contemporary dramatic literature; its performance surely becomes the standard against which the rest of this production must be judged.

Brian Stokes Mitchell
Brian Stokes Mitchell
Wilson has not given Hedley an equally persuasive center, and thus Mitchell is left with more of an acting chore. Despite an observable effort, winning in most every respect, there's a depth of understanding neither Wilson nor Mitchell ever fully achieve. Perhaps it's unavoidable: why should we expect our playwrights and actors to explain that which our politicians, psychologists and sociologists can't?

Hedley brings forward the story Wilson began telling in his play focusing on the late 40's, Seven Guitars. The central female there is now a woman in her sixties, Ruby (Leslie Uggams). Her young son then is now our King Hedley II, already wearing the badge of an ex-con (having served time for murder). With his Horatio, named Mister (very well played by Monté Russell), he is engaged in small-time crime (selling stolen refrigerators for $200 a pop, robbing the neighborhood jeweler), trying to raise enough funds to start a legitimate business. Its a dream vanquished by the realities of supply-side economics that translate into little more than minimum wage jobs and a system that's not about to play by his rules.

The story also brings forward Elmore (Charles Brown), still after Ruby's affections. He's now a voluble con-man impressed with his own elegance, and portrayed with precision and humor. It is Elmore who brings down young Hedley's house of cards, forcing a revelation -- one we know all along -- that his namesake, the man (himself a murderer) who died when the boy was three but who has been his idol, was not in fact his father. It is not this man's ghost nor his crown that haunts Hedley II, but the contents of a not-unrelated dream: "You see a halo around my head?," he keeps asking.

Wilson has fashioned these characters at once ordinary and larger than life. But it is in the character he now calls Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the man known as Canewell in Seven Guitars that Wilson invests the play's broadest world view. Functioning as a Greek chorus and the play's moral and cultural concordance, Henderson leaves Wilson's most indelible imprint.

Leslie Uggams
Leslie Uggams
In King Hedley II, we find a host of Wilson regulars, actors whose work is finely tuned to the playwright's sensibilities. In fact, only Mitchell and Uggams are new to his work, and their work is the least satisfying, perhaps as much a fault of the writing of their roles as their performances. Mitchell's efforts are discussed above. Ms. Uggams doesn't convey the insight with which the supporting cast acquits itself. She's ravishing notwithstanding, and comes close to redeeming herself when she treats us to a softly glowing rendition of a part of her son's favorite song, "Red Sails in the Sunset".

The play also boasts a creative team that is well on its way to being viewed as Wilson's principal interpreters, led by Marion McClinton, whose direction is flawlessly at one with Wilson, and whose ability to stage his story adds immeasurably to it. McClinton helmed Wilson's Jitney this past year, and has brought along set designer David Gallo (perfectly recreating the yards and houses of this pock-marked, decayed Hill District neighborhood), lighting designer Donald Holder (stunningly effective as always) and sound designer Rob Milburn (who does a fine job of mixing hopeful soul with the harsh realities conveyed by songs like Ice Cube's "The Wrong Nigger to Fuck With".He also more than does justice to the meows of the alley cats that are denizens of the 'hood.)

Our enthusiasm for the play has to be tempered by the underwriting that seems to hamper King and Ruby, and by what seems like an uneven job of nipping and cutting. (The original stagings of this play in several regional outings ran considerably longer than the current three-hour version.) There's an awful lot about Hedley II we'd like to know but don't discover: flesh on the bones of his relationships with his wife and mother, the effects of his lengthy incarceration, etc. There's also material that is included (seemingly in abbreviated form) that we don't quite understand (such as the story of his former love, whom he now visits regularly at the cemetary, clearly a strain in his relationship with Tonya.) None of these quibbles offset the substantiality of what Wilson has tendered and, after all, no one ever accused Shakespeare's great Dane of being perfect either.
L.A. Review of King Hedley II
Review of Jitney

by August Wilson
Directed by Marion McClinton
Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell with Leslie Uggams, Charles Brown, Viola Davis, Lou Myers and Monté Russell
Set Design: David Gallo
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Rob Milburn
Waltz Choreographer: Dianne McIntyre
Fight Director: David S. Leong
Running Time: 3 hours including one intermission
Virginia Theatre, 245 W. 52nd Street (7th/8th Avs.)
Telephone. 239-6200
Opening May 2, 2001 for open run
Closing 7/01/01
Tue - Sat @8; Wed & Sat @2; Sun @3; $25 - $70.
Les Gutman based on 5/1/01 performance

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