You might get a little dirty trying to reach your seat at Portland Playhouse’s production of August Wilson’s King Hedley II. The set, by designer Owen Walz, is a rundown backyard so real—right down to the dirt on the ground—that it could have been dropped in from a neighboring street. As real as it is, though, it’s but a foreshadowing of the searing authenticity of the performances to come. While the dirt is just skin deep, this production burns straight through to your soul.
Set during the blight, crime, and dead ends of ‘80s Pittsburgh, King Hedley II is considered the darkest play from Wilson’s award-winning Century Cycle, which follows one neighborhood over the course of the 20th century. Although it takes place 30 years later, King Hedley II picks up some of the characters and plotlines of Seven Guitars, fortuitously staged at Artists Repertory Theatre last month (read our review).
King Hedley II, the grown up son of the somewhat mad King Hedley who closed Seven Guitars by murdering a blues singer, has just returned from serving seven years in jail himself for the murder of a man who left a jagged scar down his face. He dreams of opening a video store with his friend, Mister (Vin Shambry). But it’s an expensive dream, and black men in his situation don’t have much. “I used to be worth $200 during slavery,” he says. “Now I’m worth $3.33 an hour.” To raise the cash, they’re selling hot refrigerators.
Like Hedley, his family and neighbors have, or have had, expansive human dreams, but mostly lack the ability and resources to fulfill them—very much a theme of Seven Guitars, showing how little has changed in the opportunities open to African Americans despite the intervening Civil Rights Movement. Hedley’s estranged mother, Ruby, played with regal resignation by Monica Parks, left him at an early age to pursue a career as a singer, but encountered sexual exploitation instead of success. Her on again, off again lover Elmore (the charismatic film, TV, and stage actor John Cothran, Jr.) has struggled to leave his life as a grifter but never managed to rise above, and comes bearing a secret. But most heartbreaking is Hedley’s wife, Tonya (another amazing turn by recent transplat Ramona Lisa Alexander), who’s watched her teenage daughter descend into a directionless life of promiscuity and can’t bear the idea of having another child. “Why want to bring another life into this world that don’t respect life?” she asks in an explosive monologue that swings with trademark-Wilson emotion and rhythm. “What kind of mother would that make me?”
Without exception, the cast is top notch—easily the strongest yet of the season—each getting his or her chance to sing through Wilson’s lyrical monologues like jazz musicians trading solos. But Peter Macon, an Emmy-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival vet, is utterly spellbinding as Hedley. He plays the frustrated young man, his dream deferred if not destroyed, with an intensity, fervor, and bombastic anger that is so visceral, particularly on the intimacy of the small theater, that at times I wanted to hide under my seat. It's hard to recall a stage performance so viscerally frightening, so emotionally affecting, and yet so pitch perfect—his deep bass hitting the rapid-fire rhythms of Wilson’s script with the expert enunciation of a Shakespearean player and the hard-earned confidence of an inner city MC. (Hedley is the one role Macon told Portland Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver he wanted to play, although it’s taken the two old friends years to find the right moment.)
Yet despite the high caliber of the performances under the steady hand of director Jade King Carroll, Wilson’s monologues grow long as the play stretches into the third hour, the epic notes of its tragic score playing out into sometimes unnecessary verses. And there’re a couple embellishments built into the script, particularly the very ending, that feel hokey compared to the machete sharp edge of the story. But if you like your drama strong and your performances intense, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a production this gripping in a setting this intimate again any time soon.
King Heldley II plays through December 30 at Portland Playhouse. For more info, go here.