King Hedley II

Play: King Hedley II Theatre: Theatre Royal Stratford East Playwright: August Wilson Director: Nadia Fall Review by Joy Francis

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson’s impressive canon is a familiar presence on the British stage. Often revived, Wilson’s poetic, passionate and brutal dissection of African American life appears to chime with British audiences and artists of colour.

King Hedley II, one of Wilson’s most demanding plays, is no walk in the park at over three hours long. Set in the projects in 1980s Pittsburgh, King Hedley II (an outstanding Aaron Pierre) is released from prison after seven years for murdering the man who left an unsightly scar down the left side of his face. Determined to start afresh, he is consumed with bitterness and rage.

He claims an unfertile patch of dirt in the backyard of his estranged mother’s house, plants seeds and wills them to grow. His way out of poverty is to sell knock off refrigerators to fulfil his dream of owning a video store with his loyal friend Mister (Dexter Flanders).  With his short fuse, a corrupt police force and criminal record, his options are limited.

King’s hardworking wife Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) wants to abort the baby she is carrying. Already a mother to a 17 year old girl, she is scared of bringing a child into a world of racism, violence and uncertainty. The fear of raising a child “you have to fight to keep alive” is too much for her to bear.

King’s mother Ruby (Martina Laird) is struggling to make amends to a son she left behind as a child on a false promise from her former lover Elmore (Lenny Henry) who abandoned her. Elmore – all sharp tailoring and Cuban heels – is a charming con man with a sinister edge who comes and “dumps his troubles and leaves fresh”.

Their eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon cries out eerie proclamations about God’s plan and man’s short-sightedness, and finds solace in rituals and ‘facts’ supplied through questionable newspaper headlines.

This is a world saturated in death, tragedy, grief and pain, and where forgiveness is in short supply. Men, riddled with emotional fragility, hide behind braggadocio and guns. A wrong look or an unwelcome word can lead to death. The political backdrop is Reaganomics, police brutality, institutionalised racism and economic disparity, much like today’s America.

Wilson’s multi-layered storytelling and beautifully crafted dialogue soars during the engrossing character monologues, which show their interior worlds, vulnerabilities and rocky road to a life of grit and grind. Vivid and emotionally-charged, Wilson’s timely words are convincingly honoured by a highly watchable cast. It is hard to tear your eyes away from Aaron Pierre’s troubled King. Played with such intensity and rawness, he keeps you perched at the edge of your seat.

Lenny Henry’s Elmore inspires mistrust and fear and his scenes with sensuous Ruby (the charming Martina Laird) are filled with play, danger and unfinished business. The talented Cherrelle Skeete’s Tonya is a force of nature while Dexter Flanders infuses Mister with a boyish innocence and humour that belies his own struggles. Theatre stalwart Leo Wringer’s forceful Stool Pigeon almost defies description as he stalks the stage, prophesying, and scrambles to find, and tell, the truth.

Nadia Fall’s direction is bold and effective with an intimate and characterful set by Peter McKintosh, reminiscent of a gritty film scene, with its crumbling, graffiti-scarred buildings and dark alleyway evoking enforced intimacy.

There is no prettification in Wilson’s King Hedley II, but there is flawed beauty in its telling.

King Hedley II is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until Saturday 15 June 2019

Photo credit: Richard Davenport