All Hail the King

L. Peter Callender's performance in the title role is the reason to see the play

The second-to-last installment in August Wilson's 10-play cycle of African-American life takes place in a depressed, almost bombed-out 1985. Reagan has liberated Grenada; Prince dominates the radio; rap is on the rise. “King” Hedley Jr. is an ambitious street hustler who would work for a living if he could. Instead, he sells stolen refrigerators. He lives in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Penn., like almost everyone in Wilson's plays. In fact, he lives in the tenement complex that was the setting for Seven Guitars (set in 1948), except now the middle section of the complex has collapsed, leaving some weedy brick piles and three steel girders to brace the other buildings. King strides across this landscape like royalty. He swaggers and speechifies to Ruby, his landlady, to Tonya, his girl, and to Mister, his partner in crime. And like a certain ancient Greek, he has no clue about his past.

King thinks his mother is a woman named Louise, and his father a wild local chicken butcher and small-time prophet named King Hedley I. He believes his heritage, and fate, resides in the proud, unruly legend of the first Hedley, who killed a man with a machete for refusing to call him “King.” (That murder was the central mystery in Seven Guitars.) The younger King is no less proud: He killed a man named Pernell for calling him “Champ,” instead of “King,” and for knifing the side of his face. King II still wears the brutal scar. He spent seven years in prison, and he's unrepentant.

This edgy portrait of an un-self-knowing hustler is the point of King Hedley II, and L. Peter Callender's performance in the role is the reason you should see it. Callender is a mainstay at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, and I'm used to watching him play deep, antique, oratorical roles. He's good at those. But he also has a modern street persona, and through it he infuses Hedley with a brash and volatile force.

King wants to open a video store with Mister. To raise capital they sell refrigerators and knock off a jewelry store. Ruby and Tonya shake their heads and predict more jail time for King, and for most of the three-hour play the audience waits for that to happen: Who will King kill? What will land him in prison?

That story's a ruse, though. A longer history fills in while you watch. King fails to realize — or refuses to believe — that Ruby is his real mother. Ruby got pregnant by a man named Leroy in Seven Guitars; later, a gambler shot Leroy over a petty debt. Midway through Hedley, Leroy's killer returns: He's a sharp-dressed con man named Elmore, who in his old age wants to marry Ruby.

King bonds easily with Elmore; he isn't ready for the truth about his past. Ruby and Elmore flirt in flashy clothes and jewelry, like a modern Creon and Jocasta from Oedipus Rex, and the only character who seems to understand the web of relationships closing around King is a pack rat named Stool Pigeon. He's the true heir to Hedley I's wild prophetic rambling, and he serves here as a Tiresias of the tenements, invoking God and fate whenever he can. “Times ain't like they useta be,” Stool Pigeon says. “Things are broke up. … People wanderin' all over the place, they got lost. They don' even know how they got from tit to tat.” And: “God's a bad motherfucker. He tell the moon and the sun what to do.” It's easy to like Stool Pigeon, and Charles Branklyn plays him with a frazzled energy.

Still, Hedley has a tragic flaw: It tries too hard to be Oedipus Rex. The parallels with Creon, Jocasta, and Tiresias are not accidental. Wilson wants us to see King Hedley II as a black Oedipus brought low by a mixture of circumstance, self-ignorance, and pure accident that may or may not be labeled “fate.” I like Wilson's ambition — the struggle to show how a random shooting might be destined from the start is impressive — but it comes at the cost of finding a natural shape for his Hill District stories. Family histories pour from his characters; it's as if 10 plays were not enough to contain everything Wilson wants to tell. But the speeches in Hedley, instead of moving the action forward, twist the play into a rough approximation of Oedipus, and the result is an overlong, often suspense-free show.

Which is too bad, because otherwise Hedley may be the strongest Wilson production so far at the Lorraine Hansberry. Every member of the cast does strong and consistent work — not just Callender and Branklyn but also Rhodessa Jones as Ruby, Michael J. Asberry as Mister, and James Tyrone Tobias Wallace II as Elmore. Tonia Jackson gives an especially wrenching and beautiful speech as Tonya, when she argues in favor of aborting King's child because so many neighborhood kids end up dead or in prison. Her bleak notion of the future may be the most classical part of Hedley; Tonya summons despair and grief like Cassandra describing her own doom.

Wilson's decade-by-decade history of the Hill District during the 20th century is almost done; he still has to write installment No. 10, set in the '90s. The plays come out of Wilson in no particular order — last year's Gem of the World was set in 1904 — and director Stanley E. Williams has been diligent about bringing each one to town as soon as he can get the rights. The project is unprecedented, and I'm sure the full cycle will amount to more than the sum of its parts. But so far each play has a similar flaw: Wilson writes rounded, moving characters, but dissipates their drama with concepts borrowed from Shakespeare and the Greeks, as if he doesn't trust his own legacy.

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