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King Hedley II (Play Review) King Hedley II (Play Review)
King Hedley II (Play Review)

Often regarded as one of August Wilson’s most potent and tragic dramas, King Hedly II, is the ninth in ‘The American Century Cycle’, a series of plays that charts the African-American experiences over a period of ten decades.


King Hedley II (Aaron Pierre) is fresh out of jail and desperate to make $10,000 to finance his dreams of owning his own video store. Aided and abetted by his friend Mister (Dexter Flander) they resell stolen refrigerators and hold up the local grocery store in pursuit of their goal.


To add to his troubles, his wife Tonya (Cherrelle Skeet) much to his horror and anguish is planning to abort their unborn child as she she sees no future for herself and doesn’t want to bring up another child for it end as another black homicide statistic.


When King’s mother Ruby (Martina Laird), ailing smooth talking ex-lover Elmore (Lenny Henry) rolls back into town to rekindle their long lost romance, as well as seeking a showdown with King, tension rise and an inevitable threat of violence hangs heavy in the air.


This sense of foreboding is further reinforced by King’s neighbour Stool Pigeon (Leo Winger), who through long biblical laced philosophical monologues warns anybody that would listen, that God has a divine plan and chillingly foretells fresh blood is the price that will have to be paid to quell his anger.


Against Ruby’s protestations, Elmore boldly announces in front of all he killed King’s father over a minuscule $25 unpaid gambling debt. The inevitable showdown that ensues between these two contrasting men is both explosive and tragic. Fresh blood is shed.


Set in the 1980s in The Hill District, now a rundown collection of collection of black neighbourhoods in downtown Pittsburgh, the play revisits some of the themes from Wilson’s previous stories. Primarily touching on the consequences for all around when the only means for settling affairs in an oppressed who only see a bleak future is community is violence.


Wilson tell us how the society through its discriminatory laws and police brutality continues to make African Americans whatever the generation feel frustrated, angry and worthless. Wilson eloquently expressing this through King’s fruitless attempt to grow flowers in an unforgiving soil, demonstrating that no matter how hard Black people try to strive and grow, the end result will always end in failure.


Pierce’s portrayal of King is first-rate. Taunt and muscle bound, face contorted with a mix of red hot anger and resentment, you feel his sense of failure and millions like him hangs to your core.

Henry, by contrast is the perfect foil for King’s anger. Sharply dressed, languid, quick witted with all the care in the world, he was delight to watch. Quiet obviously relishing in his role since it allowed him to bring to the fore some of the sharp humour for which he’s well known.


Equally mesmerising is Winger, as the local soothsayer, a forecaster of impending doom. His poetic and heartfelt delivery of theological scripture made you feel at times you were at a Sunday church in the Deep South. Popping up at critical moments, his performance was the mortar that bound all elements of this fascinating production.


Skeete, gives a credible and moving performance as the wretched and despondent wife unable to help herself and those she loves. Laird as the ex-singer forced to give up King at an early age and Flanders, King’s side kick who has fallen on hard time both give such well rounded performances in their supporting roles that it’s hard to fault this production.


The set design is worth a special mention, as it vividly added another dimension to the production.  When asked how he approached its design, Peter McIntosh said “We wanted to give a sense of desolation and of a ‘Greek Tragedy’. Something that represented the unchanging world of the Hills District. “His vision was truly realised.


King Hedley II is a magnificent production on many levels. Nadia Fall’s directing is sharp, intelligent and shrewd. She gives each actor through individual monologues an opportunity to truly express their characters, thus allowing us to see the plight of Black America from varying perspectives.


At just under three hours, this must-see play is exceptional value for money and well worth the trip to the end of the Jubilee line.


Constantza Romero, wife of the late August Wilson said in a note that she couldn’t wait to come and see the show. I can say with great certainty that she will not be disappointed.


Till 15 June, King Hedley, Theatre Royal Stratford, E15 1BN Prices and details visit: https://ebonyonline.net/event/king-hedley-with-sir-lenny-henry/


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