January 16, 2003: Wilson, King Hedley II

Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, transfer from the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company

Apparently August Wilson made it big in London last year with the production of Jitney at the National Theatre. If it was the same production I saw (but probably it wasn’t) at the Union Square Theatre in New York in November 2000, it must have made quite an impact. Yet it is the Tricycle, a modest but well appointed 250-seat theatre in the major Irish enclave in London, Kilburn, that has been the venue for three or four of Wilson’s plays, part of the ten-part epic saga he is writing of the progress (if that’s the word) of Blacks in America “from property to people” (not sure I have that quotation right). If Kilburn, a district where the local news agent in the high street offers at least a dozen Irish newspapers, seems an odd place for such a play, be it also known that various plays originating in or taking as their subject matter life in the Caribbean, or for that matter ethnic commun­ity life in the Americas more generally, have found in the Tricycle with its interested audience a welcome outlet.

This play is three hours long, including the twenty-minute intermission; but though I might have preferred the elimination or at least the muting of a dooms­day character, a white man with an anomalous southern accent who keeps quot­ing the Bible and reminding us that God is “a bad motherfucker,” who seems to be intended to add a vatic dimension but only manages to distract and irritate, I would not have wished it five minutes shorter than it was. Wilson’s great strong point is his ability to write for the solo voice, angry, impassioned, wise, or pig-headed and foolish, by turns. And his dramatic structures seem crafted to give his characters the opportunities they need to tell us who they are, where they came from, where they want to go, and where a harsh, unremittingly hostile life has prevented them from going. Wilson is at his best in capturing, at great length, the real tones, rhythms, syntax, and vocabulary of such people and making us — forcing us — to listen. He then proceeds to show us some climactic, usually physically violent, event that reaps the bitter promise built up over the course of the play.

So it is in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and so it is in this current play, whose central character, King Hedley II, is called such because the man he believes was his father was a self-crowned king and he aims to follow in his tracks. But his life has gone astray so far; he has served seven years for manslaughter after killing the man who cut him up badly and left a prominent scar from his scalp to his chin, and he is tempted into armed robbery to get the cash he needs to open a video store. Enter the con-man Elmore, who returns to sweet-talk King Hedley’s mother Ruby into taking him back and marrying him. One of the long stories told in the play is Elmore’s, of how he killed Ruby’s husband — and then follows it with the revelation that the man he killed was King’s real father. King and Elmore get into a crap game that begins to turn murderous; Ruby, much afraid that Elmore will kill her son King, retreats into the house and reemerges with a revolver. In the confusion, she aims at Elmore but kills her own son instead — a somewhat contrived ending that reminds us that Wilson is more of a lyric writer than a dramaturgical craftsman.

But the irony emergent in these last moments is nonetheless deeply and powerfully felt. These people cannot win for losing, and we need no choric presence to drive the point home. You can see why Wilson has won a Pulitzer and assorted Tonys and other fellowships and awards and prizes. In the hands of a skillful director and competent actors with a gift for fast talking, the pace of the play brims over with felt conviction and carries us along. For all his lyrical gifts, and allowing for his less than expert dramaturgy, Wilson has the talent sine qua non of the great dramatist: the ability to turn speech into a potent form of action. The action of a Wilson play never grinds to a halt while a char­acter unburdens himself or herself. On the contrary, somehow the magical narration only serves to intensify the action and carry it forward. Finally, these auto­biographical narra­tives are deeply interesting and also convey an authentic quality for which mere fine writing can never substitute. Wilson is an original, like O’Casey and O’Neill, and when he finds his voice — as he so often does — the effect is stunning and memorable. I hope Wilson resists taking the advice of well-meaning but inept critics to cut this play to a more conventional two and a half hours. (After all, it’s a bit of a trip from the Strand and Fleet Street to Kilburn, out almost to Zone 3 on the Jubilee line.) He should let it be, finish his ten plays, and then, as he himself has promised in a recent interview with a London paper, “start over.”



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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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