August Wilson was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh of a white father and a black mother. The white father never lived with the family. Wilson shared life with his mother and five siblings. He flunked out of school in the ninth grade in the 1960s, did odd jobs and started writing plays. He also founded and directed the Black Horizon Theater Company in Pittsburgh, in the predominantly black neighborhood known as "the Hill," where Wilson grew up and where King Hedley II is set.
King Hedley II -- currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater -- is part of Wilson's grand scheme of examining African-American culture through the 20th century in a series of 10 plays. Hedley takes place in 1985 and depicts a rough and violent world. At the Anthony Bean, set designer Lyn Caliva gives us two small brick houses, or rather, their facades, front doors and porches. One of the houses has piles of newspapers on the porch. Stool Pigeon (Harold Evans) lives there. He is a man in his 60s with a great knack for biblical quotations. He also is a fanatic about following the news, an enthusiasm that has resulted in his house becoming a firetrap of dried-out, old daily papers. Stool Pigeon himself is a treasure trove of folk wisdom, superstitions and eccentricities. He is particularly fond of an ancient neighborhood sibyl named Auntie Esther (366 years old, according to Stool Pigeon) as well as Auntie Esther's cat. Stool Pigeon is sort of the solo chorus in this disturbing drama.
The real action centers around the other house. King Hedley II (recent Dillard University drama grad Tory Andrus) is a young ex-con who did time in the state pen for killing a man. Now, he lives here with his wife, Tonya (Yvette Foy), and his mother Ruby, (Gwendolyn Foxworth), a one-time night club singer with an inexhaustible tarnished glamour and a healthy supply of attitude.
When we first meet King, he is planting some flower seeds in a tiny par terre of dirt. The idea that King's dirt could produce anything as beautiful and delicate as a flower is ridiculous in his mother's eyes. We also learn there are unpaid debts in the home; among them, the telephone that has been disconnected.
King is restless, angry, troubled and proud. He has a partner named Mister (Oliver Thomas). Mister works at a nails factory, where he is eternally waiting for a promised raise to become a reality. But King and Mister place their economic hopes in various scams. At one point, they got hold of TV sets and sold them. Now, they have done the same with refrigerators. Stolen merchandise? A ticket back to the pen? That's the opinion of the female contingent. King and Mister don't care to discuss the matter. They want to raise enough money to open a video store. And Mister has the more pressing short-term goal of buying furniture. His wife has left him and taken everything with her.
Into this complicated and ambiguous social group comes a semi-stranger, a shifty dude named Elmore (Will Williams), remembered for selling a broken watch to King and taking him for a ride in a crap game. Elmore is an ex-lover of Ruby's and he has come back hoping to take up where they left off years ago.
This is not, as director Anthony Bean remarked in a chat after the show, "a feel-good play." Fortunately, he has assembled a well-balanced, convincing cast. They are all the more disturbing, because they are so believable. Playwright Wilson himself noted, "The play ends in a painful way, but I think it's hopeful." I can't say I left the theater in a hopeful mood, but I left impressed by the cast and what they brought to the story.
I did have some reservations; mainly, the length of the play (nearly four hours) and the multiplicity of monologues, delivered straight out to the audience, even when another character was presumably the intended auditor. Still, it's an ambitious outing, with much going for it.