The King Is Dead
By Lauren Britt-Elmo


The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Virginia Theatre on West 52nd Street to see King Hedley II was that they picked one of the worst theatres in one of the worst locations to produce the sole black play on Broadway. 52nd Street is a good ten blocks north of the heart of Broadway. As anyone in New York can tell you, address is everything. I tried to get over it, but then I saw the facilities. There were faulty lights (one blew out during the show), the microphones were having difficulties, and an hour into the play, music from the Roseland Ballroom, a concert venue next door, began pelting in. It was a disgrace.

As I sat down, I couldn't help wondering, would they have even thought to put the Pulizer Prize-winning Proof in this theatre? August Wilson has also won that prestigious award, and David Auburn is a much less famous writer. How about The Producers, another show currently playing in a Jujamcyn theatre? As I perused the predominately white audience, I had no doubt that this was another example of the institutional racism that is woven into our culture. A little perturbed, I put hope in the production that I would see my frustration manifested in an artistic medium that would do it justice. I was disappointed yet again.

The premise of Wilson's latest installment of his 20th century anthology centers on King, a good man with a dangerous temper, who can't seem to catch a break. When Elmore, an old "friend of the family," comes to town, he brings along trouble, as secrets about King's birthright are revealed, culminating in a tragic end. Though beautiful and striking at times, overall the production is unimpressive. I wonder where the lack of respect for the show first came from: the theatre owners or the production team? Because it is clear, from the boring set to the costumes that did not match the time period to the disjointed acting, that there is a lack of respect for this play.

The set has no depth. David Gallo employs the same confined, flat canvas for Wilson's Jitney last season at Second Stage, but it does not bring about the same claustrophobic effect. Instead, it just looks lazy. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James are just irresponsible. Cargo pants and 3/4 length sleeves were not in style in 1985. Yet that is what King and Tonya wear. And not one person on stage wears a pair of acid-wash jeans. The only way the audience is even made aware that the play is set in the 1980s is through the program notes and the recording of Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the play. The music is all from the time, but it still does not fit, probably because the rap soundtrack is not something any of these characters would ever listen to. The anger that simmers within King does not just start in 1980. It actually begins with his father, a character in Wilson's Seven Guitars set in 1948.

The saving grace comes from the actors, but even they have problems. Marion McClinton, the director of King Hedley II and a longtime collaborator of Wilson's, is best known for cultivating moving performances out of his actors by developing specifics in the characters. However, Wilson is similar to David Mamet in that his work requires a specific type of acting style. One that absorbs the length and breadth of Wilson's speeches and pushes the action forward even when the character is not the center of attention. Wilson's plays are not driven by traditional plot structure, but they are driven and the actor has to work to inhabit and contain the language. Despite McClinton's efforts, some of the actors are not able to do that, which contributes to a feeling that the members of the ensemble cast are acting in different plays. Brian Stokes Mitchell as the title role begins the play standing as if he were waiting for a song cue, but once Viola Davis (who plays his wife, Tonya) gets on stage, she whips his musical comedy ways right out of him. She finds variety in a character that is sick and tired of being sick and tired. Leslie Uggams, who plays King's wayward mother Ruby, is a formidable actress; however she never seems to get the rhythm of the play. Unless Elmore (played by Charles Brown) is flirting with her or King is spurning her, she does not know what to do with herself.

It's a shame that more effort was not put into this production. It is as if everyone involved simply rested on August Wilson's laurels to pull the play together. He is definitely one of the most prolific and best playwrights of our time, however, he is still a playwright whose work needs to be fully developed in order for him to develop as a writer. Both he and his work need to be treated with respect.---dw


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