- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2001

Homey and well-kept back yards have given way to urban decay in "King Hedley II," August Wilson's 1980s play that is part of his decade-by-decade examination of 20th-century black American life and a sequel of sorts to "Seven Guitars."

"Seven Guitars" took place in 1948, when postwar hopes were still high and neighborhood pride was strong in the black working-class Pittsburgh enclave known as the Hill District.

In "King Hedley II," it is 1985, and 35 years have not been kind to the brick row houses, now ripe for condemning. Rats run through the back yards, and rocky dirt has replaced postage-stamp gardens.

The years have not been kind to the people, either. Drive-by shootings, gangs and random violence in which men are shot over fish sandwiches are part of their life. Rap music — the acid-burn sound of anger — blares through the streets.

Some of the characters from "Seven Guitars" reappear, and life seems to have gnawed them down. Ruby (Leslie Uggams), the sassy and juicy country girl from "Seven Guitars," has aged into a woman with dreams so shriveled that all she wants is to retreat to a high-rise for old people and watch TV. She once was a promising jazz singer who abandoned her son King Hedley II (Brian Stokes Mitchell) to her cousin Louise so she could pursue a career and gallivant with Elmore, of whom she just could not let go.

Now she is living in her dead cousin's home, coexisting uneasily with King, who has grown up and is expecting a baby with his wife, Tonya (Viola Davis). King, a surly boy in a man's body, refuses to acknowledge Ruby as his mother. He considers Louise his mama, and Ruby's dead husband, Hedley (the messianic chicken-seller from "Seven Guitars"), as his father.

Hedley's memory is kept alive by Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), known as Canewell in "Seven Guitars," a former musician whose house is stuffed with newspapers because he wants to preserve history and who is given to prophetic ravings of biblical prophecy.

King reminds you of Dante's image of Ajax in hell, mired in self-inflicted rage with black clouds roaring around his head. King stands in the spread-legged stance of a boxer primed for a fight. He constantly is on the defensive — maybe seven years in prison did it to him, but you get the feeling he always has been volatile. He is a physically beautiful man with a face bisected by a scar that extends from his scalp to his throat. He also is maniacal about getting his due — whether it is $20 owed him or revenge on the people who put him in jail.

He isn't a particularly likable character but is a powerful one. Along with his friend Mister (Monte Russell), a petty thief, King dreams of owning a video store, and the two are selling semilegit refrigerators to accomplish that goal.

However, life keeps getting in the way: Mister needs money for furniture, King needs his phone turned back on, an opportunity for a big score from robbing a jewelry store arises and dreams of going straight evaporate. Dreams die for good when Elmore (Charles Brown) shows up, now a smooth and jocular gambler-scam artist who arrives partly to woo Ruby and mostly to unburden himself of a family secret that he's been carrying for years — a secret that will tear King asunder.

King does have glints of softness. As the play begins, he is planting flowers for Tonya. He seems devoted to his wife, who simply seems swallowed whole by life, which includes a troubled teen-age daughter.

Mr. Wilson, whose writing of female characters gets fuller and more gorgeous with each play, has given Tonya two blazing soliloquies. The first presents her searing explanation about why she doesn't want to bring another child into the world, and the poetry pours out of Miss Davis in a torrent as she enumerates her failures as a mother. Never has pain held such hot beauty as when Tonya tells us what she already knows in her heart — that love is not nearly enough to keep a child safe.

Later, in Act 2, Tonya has another great speech, as she tells King that her small world has little use for finery and things. What she wants is her husband next to her in bed in the morning, a routine that does not involve prison visits and or stealing to pay the bills. King is enough, life is enough.

Not enough is the theme of "King Hedley II," as it was in "Seven Guitars." Everyone is looking for that last little piece, that big score, that will have them achieving that magic number that puts them on Easy Street. But they are always short, always wanting.

The characters in "King Hedley," with the exception of Tonya, are ruled by money, numbers, superstitions and luck. Ruby believes a golden horseshoe over her door will end her string of bad luck. Everything in their lives has a number attached to it — 14 bullets pumped into a man's body, 112 stitches in King's head, being worth $1237 dollars as a slave but now only worth $3.35 an hour, $225 to have the phone turned back on.

For the characters, numbers are not only a way to keep count but a way to make sure you count. The theme of superstition, numbers and luck gives Mr. Wilson ample opportunity for laughs, and there are endless rich, comic moments as we watch the characters striving to catch up, beat the system, pull off a harebrained scheme or get drawn into a con. These people may be reduced in circumstances, but they still can see the absurd, teasing humor in their actions.

The play takes on a mystical dimension in Act II, when, after the leisurely scat rhythm of the first act, Elmore starts hurtling toward what he believes is his destiny. After the free and easy, undulating riffs of Act 1 — director Marion McClinton seems so enraptured by Mr. Wilson's heady poetry that there seems hardly any structure at all — we are almost unprepared for the fury of the second act.

Things get unbearably intense as Elmore pushes his twin agendas of marrying Ruby and telling King the truth. During the showdown, the suave and cool Elmore plays the consummate huckster, drawing King in slowly and seductively until he delivers the final whammy. This is a magnificent scene, with the virtuoso of manipulation, Elmore, reeling in the combative King, whose brain is short-circuited by his incredible anger.

Contributing to the last act's intensity is the background presence of Stool Pigeon, who takes on the mystic guise of Hedley as he tries to bring back the spirit of Aunt Ester, the 300-year-old healer and spiritual heart of the Hill District, whose recent death frames the play. Stool's prophetic exhortations give what could have been just a fight between two men a galvanizing gravity, an almost Shakespearean grandeur.

While the male characters push the action, the play's female roles come across as the strongest. Miss Uggams bristles with disappointment and dissatisfaction as Ruby. Mr. Wilson has given her speeches that swarm with poetry, and Miss Uggams nails the scatty rhythms of the language every time. She has a transcendent scene near the end: Dressed in a shiny red dress, she tries to reach her son by teaching him how to waltz. Drifting into the past, Ruby forgets that she is dancing in the dust and getting her shoes and dress dirty.

Miss Davis is electrifying as Tonya, who sees the future as beyond her grasp. She is Earth-rooted and wants to hang onto what little she has, while the others ask for more.

The male actors are equally strong, especially Mr. Brown as the chillingly charming Elmore. He moves so nimbly across the stage, it is as if he is not a creature of this Earth.

Mr. Henderson adeptly prowls between a comic and mystical figure as Stool Pigeon, and Mr. Russell is excellent as the constantly scheming, malleable Mister.

Mr. Mitchell has the physical presence of King, but he has not fully inhabited the role. King thus comes across as a lot of fury and hot air but not much else. As with the character of Floyd Barton in "Seven Guitars," we want to feel the weight of this man's life, his time on Earth, so that he acquires a worth that cannot be measured in numbers, or in dollars and cents.

The play also could be heightened by some trimming, which probably is difficult since this is one of Mr. Wilson's most sinuously musical of plays. It hits notes both light and dark. But there is so much poetry that you almost become a prisoner of its beauty.

Set free the character of King and some of the nearly four-hour length of "King Hedley II," and the play could be that rarest of things — a work for the ages.{*}{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "King Hedley II"WHERE: Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today and tomorrow; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 25TICKETS: $20 to $68PHONE: 202/467-4600


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