Seeing a play at August Wilson’s actual home is beyond a privilege. It is absolutely necessary as someone who is in Pittsburgh and loves theatre to indulge in this experience! It is exceptionally fascinating. The literal setting adds a depth of implicit range.
As for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of King Hedley II, the seductive treatment of “place” makes for only one of the truly talented, organic devices come to play in understanding this work, the life of its characters and their relation to their space.
This play is about the complicated reality of an anger and injustice. It is about how the 1980’s were a time where opportunity was robbed for African-Americans; and understanding that the vital, busy and crucially commercial space for their development and living had been cut apart in particular in a place like the Hill District. Here we look upon a people of a devastated area as they plumb the relics for opportunity and find only the betrayal of a nation which lies and distrusts.
And within this examination, comes break-out, awesome performances. The actor Rico Romulus Parker, as the titular King, came in as a replacement two weeks before opening, purportedly performing with only nine rehearsals under his belt. This man absolutely kills this role. It is outrageous, the extent to which he sticks his neck out feeling the plight of this character who Life has betrayed and so chooses a dogma of chance and hustling. Parker gives such a candid, bright portrayal of the instability that comes with utter, existential frustration and really gives this play the strength to its driving madness.
But not without terrific support! The thing I liked most about Sala Udin’s Stool Pigeon is the inability to tell whether he’s a pariah or truly mystical. The unnamed man, guided by his fear of God and in seeming ecstasy as to the will of God is a product of the driving force of madness meeting destiny. If God’s will is wrath, what about the faithful? Udin speaks with the elegant bravado of either pastor or pariah, but his wisdom is wisely seconded to his prowess for compromise. His shrug is where the power of the role reins, a conciliation towards the great judgment. Udin carries all the weight of promise on his back, and takes his time with the role. It’s irksome, but so is the situation.
Watching Wali Jamal is like watching a magician work. He carries an aura, everything he says part of a stunt; the subtext, the trick. He’s so good his performance feels like it’s pulling one over on you, so for him to play the hustler that is Elmo gives so much resonant justice to the role. His flashiness comes coupled with Etta Cox as the fraught but nonchalant Ruby. Cox’s ability to mesh into a role showcasing someone whose trauma and struggle does not allow for her to be brow-beaten gives a performance that carries so much weight. Even when she’s humming, she’s carrying a notion of danger being subdued. When the weight of her emotional role finally hits the floor and her shroud is lifted, it is unwieldy. With a charisma so delightful; when catharsis burns, it pours like an acid. I always wonder what lies beneath the sweetness of a lady whose life has long been tormented.
Sam Lothard is a regular performer for PPTCO and it’s always such a pleasure to see him on stage. He is able to flex the charismatic ease with which he takes on a persona, in this role as much as any other he’s taken on. With Lothard’s Mister, we see an opportunistic hustler who treats his crimes as they are given: as the only reasonable job. But even beyond that, it seems his compromise is a careful one. He respects the turn of things and the turbulence around him. It’s like Lothard can perform stillness in an ocean of crazy and chaos. He creates a humble aura which puts him into the friendliness of a character, almost seamlessly creating a relationship between himself and the audience.
Karla Payne’s Tonya has outstanding reserve as well. Though this play is largely about true survivors soldiering through a devastated landscape, Tonya has so much vigor and drive. But it’s all kept under, well-constrained and fierce in the ability to keep others out. Payne does a remarkable job of speaking so much with her eyes, that when her monologue actually breaks it’s as if the levy can’t rightly be controlled. And yet she does it. She reins it back in, with masterful precision.
The setting is ironically other-worldly in how literally attuned it is to its own work. I can’t stress this enough: it is remarkable to see this play in this setting, to feel it there. And the direction by Mark Clayton Southers, Monteze Freeland and Dennis Robinson Jr. has the heart and dedication put into realizing not just a beautiful, prescient story about a real place and a real need for change; but a sincerity towards its creator: August Wilson. This show has power, a loving power that ties you to itself.
The characters leave from the backyard and you know how far they go. You think about the pacing to get there. Areas like Wylie Avenue, and Elmore St are given actual consideration for distance. The red brick houses, the siding, the skyline and even the dirt are examined in the play; they are not inferred, but literal. You are there. You get the opportunity to experience a literal realization of this extremely relevant exploration into a situation that 30 years on, still has not been rectified. That the community is in dire need and the violence of a gun-soaked America with heated racial bias is not going to be the answer. It’s going to be the death knell of God.
King Hedley II by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company runs at the childhood home of playwright August Wilson through June 3. For tickets and more information click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews