THE BASICS: KING HEDLEY II, one of the “Century Cycle” plays by August Wilson, directed by award-winning Ed Smith, runs through Sunday December 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 4 at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue. (884-2013). www.aaccbuffalo.org Fresh popcorn, candy, iced tea available. Runtime: A little over 3-1/2 hours with one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Set in the African-American “Hill District” of Pittsburgh, King Hedley II (Hugh Davis), named after the man he believes was his father, and recently out of prison, is selling stolen refrigerators while trying to save enough to open a video store with his friend Mister (Jon Cesar). When door-to-door sales of refrigerators isn’t get-rich-quick enough, they plan to rob a jewelry store. Ruby (Renita Shadwick) is King’s mother, a character who first appeared in August Wilson’s play SEVEN GUITARS when she was pregnant with young King. Also, brought forward into the 1980s from that play is Elmore (Vincenzo L. McNeill), a smooth-talking gambler who, it is revealed towards the end of the play, was also a killer. Tonya (Christina Foster) is King’s wife, pregnant again but considering an abortion rather than bringing a child into a life of poverty, crime, and despair. And Stool Pigeon (Al Garrison) as King’s elderly neighbor acts as an evangelist, proclaiming a divine plan for everything. His repeated refrain: “God’s a bad motherfucker!”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Yes, it’s long (over 3-1/2 hours), but no longer than grand opera, and why it hasn’t been turned into one in our time is a mystery. If Verdi were still alive, he couldn’t have resisted this story of the sins of the father visited upon the son.
Why so long? Well, it has been described as “discursive” (which means digressing from topic to topic). Also, one of the actors was called in as a last-minute replacement, and, as good as he is, the pacing can only get tighter later in the run (although only up through December 2). One saving grace preventing posterior paralysis was the new thickly cushioned seating made possible by a donation from Deborah Goldman and Grant Golden. Very comfy.
It’s a damn near wonderful production, involving six of the ablest actors in town who fully immerse themselves in their roles, on a stunning set full of detail, designed by Harlan Penn.
It’s a damn near wonderful production, involving six of the ablest actors in town who fully immerse themselves in their roles, on a stunning set full of detail, designed by Harlan Penn. The weathered stockade fence and crooked doors, the appearance of screening on the windows, the whole back-alley vibe, was so typical of Penn’s mastery of set design. In many ways it reminded me of SIVE over at the Irish Classical Theatre in that if you’d paid Shaw Festival or New York City ticket prices, you would have gotten your money’s worth. It’s that good.
Renowned director Ed Smith lives in Texas, but was thrilled to return to Buffalo to direct this August Wilson play. (“It’s an honor to be back home in Buffalo!”) Obviously the right man to direct this play, Smith has done seven of the ten “Century Cycle” plays and has previously directed the likes of Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Stephen McKinley Henderson. Smith is quoted in the program as saying: “I will go anywhere in the world to direct any of Mr. Wilson’s plays.”
Hugh Davis, muscled and angular, is able to present a tightly coiled King Hedley II, who one minute is looking to the future, trying to get flowers to grow in the poor soil of his back yard, and the next is living in the past: “Pernell made me kill him. Pernell called me ‘champ’. I told him my name’s King. He say, ‘Yeah, champ.’ …He don’t know my daddy killed a man for calling him out of his name. He don’t know he fucking with King Hedley II. I got the atomic bomb as far as he’s concerned. And I got to use it.”
Renita Shadwick could have used a touch more gray in her hair as King’s mother, but, her acting is so strong that in the end, you really care about her, not so much whose mother she is as she swings so easily between despair for the future and soft memories of the past. “You never know what God have planned. You can’t all the time see it…but God can see it good.”
Jon Cesar is just as conflicted as Ruby, but, being younger, is more rash and physically demonstrative, and as King’s wife, definitely gives him an earful from time to time. The women in the audience LOVED THAT!
Jon Cesar plays Mister, King’s side-kick, as more easy-going and less driven by inner demons. He doesn’t provide comic relief necessarily, but does provide the humanity that keeps the play from appearing to be the Greek tragedy that it is.
And Vincenzo L. McNeill has the smooth swagger of Elmore down perfectly, part con-artist and gambler, but not a two-dimensional character. He has his own demons and his own past and his own internal conflicts and is in a position to offer sage advice: “That’s the first thing you learn about carrying a pistol. When you pull it, you better use it.”
To a short of list of show-stopping voices including Hollywood stars James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and Dennis Haysbert, I will add Buffalo’s Al Garrison.
But in conclusion, let me tell you that it was a thrill to hear the mellifluous voice of Al Garrison (last seen at The Robeson in August Wilson’s MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM). To a short of list of show-stopping voices including Hollywood stars James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and Dennis Haysbert, I will add Buffalo’s Al Garrison. In this play about revenge following doggedly on the heels of revenge, his character Stool Pigeon, in between lengthy Bible quotes, opines: “I forgive. That’s the Key to the mountain. God taught me how to do that. God can teach you a lot of things. He don’t give you nothing you can’t handle. God’s a bad motherfucker!”
UP NEXT: NATIVE SON a 1941 drama written by Paul Green and Richard Wright based on Wright’s novel of the same name, on stage January 18 to February 10, 2019 at The Paul Robeson Theatre.
Then, the 2nd Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition features local students, each student performing a 1-to-3-minute monologue of his or her choosing from one of the ten plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle. There are 12 cities participating in the competition (Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Greensboro, Dallas, Los Angeles, New Haven, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland and Seattle) and each city will send its 1st and 2nd place finishers to New York City to compete at the national level. This year, the competition is Saturday, February 9, in Buff State’s Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center.
Lead image: From L to R, Jon Cesar as “Mister,” Al Garrison as “Stool Pigeon,” and Christina Foster as “Tonya”.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!