Ronald Wilson Reagan served as the 40th President of the United States of America from 1981 until 1989. It was a time when the African American poverty rate was three times as much as the poverty rate for white people; Black unemployment was double that of white unemployment; and even when Black people did get jobs, their median household income was 42 percent lower than the household income of their white counterparts. The Reagan administration did very little to address these imbalances – actually, it did much in the way of the opposite. It’s what we see playing out here in King Hedley II, the penultimate play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle.
The time is the year 1985 and the place is Pittsburgh’s Hill District. There’s not so much a linear narrative as a snapshot of life at the time through an amalgamation of several intertwined stories, played by a blindingly good ensemble. Contrary to what the publicity posters suggest, the eponymous character is not played by Lenny Henry, but by impressive newcomer Aaron Pierre. His King Hedley II is back in town after spending seven years in jail on a murder conviction. He is determined to go straight in order to support his wife and the baby they’re expecting but, ironically, the only way to do that is to commit more crime – he raises money to buy a video store is by selling knock-off refrigerators with his best friend since high school and sometime business partner, Mister (Dexter Flanders).
Cherrelle Skeete is his wife Tonya; thirty-five years old and wrestling with the reality of bringing a baby into a world of danger and deprivation – she doesn’t want to raise no kid to have the police shoot him, she wants to have an abortion. King Hedley II’s father is out of the picture but his mother Ruby (Martina Laird) is on the scene. She used to sing in a band but these days she is motivated by love – the love she wants for herself, but mainly, the all encompassing love she holds for her son – a fact that makes the ending all the more devastating. Ruby’s occasional lover is professional hustler Elmore (Lenny Henry). He often disappears for prolonged periods but whenever he returns he’s full of smooth grand gestures of tacky jewellery and marriage proposals. Leo Wringer completes the ensemble as Stool Pigeon, the local spiritual truthsayer and old newspaper collector.
Martina Laird and Cherrelle Skeete offer up stellar performances – it is especially wonderful to see Skeete in a meaty role that showcases the range of her acting skill. But this August Wilson play is definitely about the men. Each one in this piece offers a portrayal of what it meant to be a Black American man at this specific point in time. Ultimately, they all want thrive, not just survive – and to be respected. King’s desire is communicated via a repeated question: do you see a halo around my head? He knows he’s done bad things in life but desperately wants to be seen as a good man, an honourable man.
This rarely performed Wilson reminded me of the late John Singleton’s 1991 movie Boys n the Hood in the way every one of the focal characters is the same, but different. It’s unwieldy and sprawling. In Nadia Fall’s production, great loquacious – sometimes overindulgent – monologues dominate the space and draw out the piece (on press night it ran longer than the advertised three hours and 25 minutes). Still, it’s an acute study of the life of the Black man in America, which we know because not much has changed in the years since it was written.
King Hedley II is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 15th June. More info and tickets here.