Court Theatre

King Hedley II

At the Court Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – “King Hedley II” is the ninth play in August Wilson’s monumental 10-play cycle of black life in America in the 20th century. Each play is set in a different decade in the 20th century, Wilson locating “Hedley in 1985.

The play stirred both admiration and criticism when it opened on Broadway in 2001 for an unusually modest run for a Wilson play. There were complaints that the play was too long (it was revised several times before it opened) and too verbose. Whatever its perceived defects, “King Hedley II” can now claim its place among Wilson’s greatest plays, thanks to a volcanic revival at the Court Theatre, one of Wilson’s most zealous Wilson houses for years (this is the Court’s eighth Wilson staging).

“Hedley” is set in Wilson’s favorite locale, the Hill District, a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. All the action takes place in the raggedy yard of a scruffy residential area. There are six characters in the play, the title character, his wife Tonya, his mother Ruby, a smooth conman named Elmore, Hedley’s friend Mister (given that first name so that white people would be forced to address him as “mister), and a bible-quoting slightly eccentric local resident nicknamed Stool Pigeon who serves as a kind of one-man Greek chorus.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

All the characters are great talkers, and most of the play consists of long, verbally dense monologues and exchanges between two or three characters. There is no real narrative arc to the play, and I had some difficulty early on identifying the relationships between characters. I also struggled at times grasping Wilson’s language, often delivered at warp speed in the Hill Street brogue. All the characters are united by their blackness, acting out their struggle to make lives for themselves in a white culture that has reduced African American life to crime and poverty and brittle family relationships.

The story has its roots in events recounted in earlier plays that lead to the stunning violent conclusion. Throughout the performance, the characters express their anger and frustration for lives impacted by racism. It’s a white world played by white rules (though no white characters appear in the play). The overriding indignity is poverty. The men in the play are constantly scheming in their need for money, with $50 being a sum worth fighting and perhaps killing for. The usually futile quest for even a few dollars builds the tensions that drive the characters. It’s a soul-destroying way of life and the anger and resentment are palpable throughout the evening.

The play makes a case for August Wilson as perhaps the most eloquent writer in American drama. None of the characters is ever at a loss for words. There must be at least a half dozen huge blocks of text that the Court ensemble converts into soaring arias that touch on philosophy, religion, love and marriage, and above all the racist criminal justice system. The characters recognize that it has ever been thus in America and they look for no relief in the future. Hedley has just completed a seven-year term in prison for murder. He sees the killing as self defense and states that’s how the violent death would be treated if he was white. It’s such furious thoughts that stoke Hedley’s bitterness and desperation.

I may not be able to connect all the talking points in the play, but I was aurally ravished by the extended verbal set pieces, mostly delivered by Tonya, Hedley, and Elmore that cascade, one after another, with breathtaking intensity. There are also symbols peppered throughout the action, like Hedley trying to raise a flower garden in the inhospitable soil of the backyard. The references to family history emerge in scattershot fashion, coalescing into the searing final moments. The playwright injects assorted weapons into the play, sometimes playfully. But it is a given that playwrights don’t include weapons on stage unless they become a crucial part of the action. And so it is in “Hedley,” with stunning impact.

          Photo Credit:   Michael Brosilow

August Wilson’s popularity in Chicagoland theater has led to the development of a deep pool of African American actors able to handle the physical and emotional demands of a Wilson play. The Court has drawn from the Wilsonian performing A list with ear and eye grabbing performances by Kelvin Roston Jr (Hedley), Ronald Conner (Mister), TayLar (Ruby), and A. C. Smith (Elmore), with flawlessly complementary performances by Kierra Bunch (Tonya) and Dexter Zollicoffer (Stool Pigeon).

Roston should get pride of place for his explosive and complex portrait of the turbulent Hedley. A. C. Smith, with his imposing physical presence and booming voice, gives his usual commanding performance, this time as the oily Elmore with his own place in family history.. Bunch’s Tonya takes over the stage for what seemed like a half hour with her ravishing first act monologue about marriage and motherhood and lots of other things. And so it goes down the line.

Ron OJ Parson has become the patriarch of Wilson directors over the years. Indeed, because the script has been subjected to so much criticism over the years, “Hedley” maybe Parson’s finest artistic achievement.“King Hedley II” may be his greatest success because his production has overcome so many textual challenges with such accessibility. Parson receives splendid design assistance from Regina Garcia (set), Alexia Rutherford (costumes), Mike Durst (lighting), and Christopher M. LaPorte (sound).

“King Hedley II” is a long play, though it has been pruned from its original extended length. What survives now remains a titanic achievement. Still, it is a difficult play and likely won’t be revived frequently, especially because so many Wilson dramas have better commercial histories. So now’s the time for viewers, Wilson completists and newcomers alike, to catch the drama at the Court during its comparatively brief run.

-“King Hedley II” gets a rating .

“King Hedley II” runs through October 13 at the Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28.50 to $66. Call 773 753 4472 or visit

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