Poverty rules in King Hedley II

If you never thought you would hear Public Enemy during a play intermission or imagined Ice Cube could provide a performance’s musical backdrop, the Kennedy Center’s production of King Hedley II may be the refreshing theatrical experience you need.

Set in Pittsburgh’s rough Hill district in 1985, the story centers on the trials and tribulations of a family struggling to survive in an environment overridden with urban squalor, unemployment and violence.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson – considered by many to be the best dramatist of the black experience – the Kennedy Center’s production features veteran Broadway actor Brian Stokes Mitchell. Mitchell plays King Hedley II – he has no relation to any real royalty – who cannot seem to break out of a cycle of crime and violence that plagues him.

The play documents the exploits of Hedley and his friend Mister selling stolen refrigerators to pay their bills. The scene represents a poor urban population that was economically marginalized by the urban decline in the 1980s.

The play develops with the arrival of a smooth-talking old family friend and incessant gambler named Elmore, who aims to win money and the heart of Hedley’s charming jazz-singing mother Ruby, played by Tony Award-winner Leslie Uggams.

Through the everyday struggles of the family, Wilson broadens the scope of the play by touching upon the themes of morality and religion. Hedley, Mister and Elmore live by their own moral code, one based more on mutual respect and family honor than pacifism. The characters justify murders they committed by saying the victims triggered their own killing.

Perhaps the most integral component of King Hedley II is the presence of Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), an eccentric old man who collects newspapers so that the next generation “will know what happened.” What appear to be random rantings and ravings of an old man turn out to be insightful precursors about the path of destruction the family is following and the role every person plays in the grand scheme of life.

Although King Hedley II is no true tragedy – as the audience does not find enough redeeming qualities in some characters to feel much empathy at the end – the progression of events, family secrets and confrontations that unfold in the crumbling brick alleyway make for an exciting ride through tough times.
King Hedley II plays at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a special pre-Broadway engagement until March 25. Call (202) 467-4600 for tickets.

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