The Black Rep closes season with ‘King Hedley II’

The final show of The Black Rep’s 47th season is King Hedley II, the ninth of playwright August Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle. The plays, all but one of which take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood, examine Black life across the decades of the 20th century.

King Hedley II is the 1980s installment, premiered in 1999. It centers on a man trying to make a life and start a family after a seven-year incarceration. He’s saving for his dream of opening a video store by selling stolen refrigerators, trying to build a future and reckoning with characters from his past.

“It’s perhaps one of the darkest plays of the cycle,” says Ron Himes, founder and producing director of The Black Rep, who also directs this production. “I like to look at maybe Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as sort of the light and optimistic one.” That play, set in 1917, visits with Black folks moving North during the Great Migration. “On the other end of the spectrum,” Himes says, “you have King Hedley II.”

The play is in some ways a continuance of a previous play in the cycle, Seven Guitars. That work is set at a funeral in 1948 and flashes back to the dead man’s life and tribulations. The reflection is purposeful. “A lot of the characters in King Hedley II are from Seven Guitars,” says Himes. “Some are the children of characters from Seven Guitars. We begin to see the generational pull or impact of American society on the Black community in the Hill District.”

The last time that The Black Rep performed King Hedley II, in 2006, Himes himself played the title role. He says directing another actor in the part is illuminating, letting him see the character through another actor’s choices.

Himes says moments of reunion are among his favorites in the play. King poignantly reunites with his absentee mother, Ruby—and her newfound maternal feelings are rebuffed. “August said really early on that when he was writing this play, he was approaching it as a Greek tragedy,” Himes says. “He was looking at King as the tragic anti-hero.”

Historical dramatic conventions also show up in the sage and observant character of Stool Pigeon, who in some ways recalls a Greek chorus or Shakespearean fool. “I really sort of love his pronouncements and his view of the world,” says Himes.

For many audience members, the play moves into history that they personally remember, rather than what they learned from history books. Wilson’s themes are brought into sharp focus, intimately familiar to present-day viewers. “Audiences will recognize the time; they’ll recognize the circumstances that the characters are living in and dealing with,” says Himes. “So many of the issues are so prevalent today: gun violence, abortion, teen pregnancy, depressed Black communities, unemployment. The city that we’re in right now, every day you turn on the news, you see a story about gun violence,” says Himes. “You’re hearing about community leaders trying to find a way and prevent it.”

Drama, as always, has a role to play beyond the theater. Wilson, who died in 2005, wrote with the intention of fostering discussion and finding solutions: “These plays help stimulate that conversation and, hopefully, help to provide some options or alternatives,” Himes says, “that we find a way to talk not about statistics, but people.”

King Hedley II runs Wednesdays through Sundays, June 19–July 14, at the Edison Theatre on Washington University’s Danforth campus. Tickets start at $20.

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