Powerful King traces the black experience

"King Hedley II," which opened at Broadway's Virginia Theatre earlier this month and is nominated for six Tony Awards, is one of playwright August Wilson's most brilliant works. Despite one flaw, it may yet become one of the classic dramas of American theater.

"King Hedley II" is set in the 1980s in the same "Hill District" slums of Pittsburgh where "Jitney," "Fences," "The Piano Lesson" (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and other Wilson plays have taken place. Taken together - and spanning the years from 1910 to the 1980s - they are the poet-playwright's attempt at chronicling the often brutal but still hopeful black American experience in the 20th Century. (Mr. Wilson is reportedly planning to complete this cycle with plays set in the first and last decades of the 20th century.)

"I had one little old gambling joint," says the character Elmore, flawlessly played by Charles Brown, himself a 17-year veteran of the internationally acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company.

"Police came and busted it up. Took that away from me. That's when I figured out rule No. 1. You can't let nobody take nothing from you ... Whatever it is. Your dignity. Your money. Your wife. Your life. Life's hard. You can't lay down and cry 'Uncle.' It push [sic] up against you ... You got to push back. If you a man. That's rule No. 2, 'Push Back.' You can't be afraid of life."

For all of this magical, poetic dialogue and emotion, "King Hedley II" isn't as brilliant as it might have been. Mr. Wilson somehow appears unwilling or unable to trust his amazingly rich and poignant characters and soaring dialogue completely as, for example, Eugene O'Neill did in "The Iceman Cometh" or "Long Day's Journey into Night." Yet with the exception of Wilson's own works and stellar revivals of O'Neill's "Iceman" and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," "King Hedley II" still towers above most other Broadway dramas in recent decades.

The play's title character is a salesman and sometime small-time crook whose big dreams for his son and family are clouded by even bigger self-doubt and frustration. But the play's Olympian dramatic heights are curtailed by a series of melodramatic second-act plot twists that sap some of its power and grandeur.

Nevertheless, filled with extraordinary performances - including those by Brian Stokes Mitchell (who starred in the recent Broadway musicals "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Ragtime") as King Hedley II and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Stool Pigeon, a mystical, erudite old man who can quote the Bible with the best of them - "King Hedley II" is a powerful theatrical experience.

It also features a rare appearance in a dramatic part by singer and musical comedy actress Leslie Uggams. Ms. Uggams, whose credits include Maria Callas in "Master Class," plays King's caring and concerned mother, Ruby, with understated eloquence and humor.

In addition to the play's Tony nominations, last weekend Mr. Brown and Viola Davis won Drama Desk awards as best featured actor and actress in a play.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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