Rhythms of Life

I expect to be blown away by any August Wilson play. And I'm used to the fact that at the Denver Center, I'll find skilled and generous-spirited actors, many of whom have held Wilson's words in their mouths and felt his rhythms in their bodies over several years and through many productions, to bring those plays to vivid life. But the current staging of King Hedley II, in the Space Theatre, adds another benefit: a towering performance by newcomer Terrence Riggins in the title role. Riggins's performance reminds me of one I saw in London three years ago: that of Henry Goodman playing Shylock in Trevor Nunn's production of The Merchant of Venice. Nunn stood the usual conception of this play on its head, transforming Merchant from a comedy with some dark undertones to a piercing tragedy over which the figure of Shylock loomed, immense and unforgiving. King Hedley is a completely different character who endures entirely different circumstances, but there's a similarity in the two men's bleak integrity and bitter rage. Like Shylock, Hedley is driven to mad schemes of self-justification, survival and revenge by his country's vicious racism; like Shylock, he himself is hardly a good man.

It has been remarked often -- including by me, in these pages -- that watching Wilson's work is like listening to music. You get involved in the rhythms of the language; every now and then a character launches into something resembling an extended jazz riff, or perhaps an operatic aria. The plots make sense, but they don't really drive the action. You just find yourself caught up in a rich and specific world.

King Hedley II lacks the camaraderie and good humor of some of Wilson's earlier plays. It is set in the mean-spirited years of President Ronald Reagan, when inner cities were left to disintegrate and the poor were left to their own unraveling devices. This was a time of increased homelessness, drive-by shootings, sporadic violence. King Hedley, named for the West Indian he believes to be his father, has recently been released from prison, having served seven years for killing a man who scarred his face with a razor. According to his code of ethics, the killing was inevitable. Blood must follow blood; insults must be avenged. To do less would cause the dissolution of his very self.

King Hedley returns to his wife, Tonya, and his 62-year-old mother, Ruby, in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, where Wilson has set most of his plays. He intends to go straight. Well, straightish. When the play opens, he and his friend, Mister, are already selling off stolen refrigerators in the hopes of making enough money to buy a video store. And it doesn't take long -- what with Mister's financial problems, the fact that Tonya is pregnant, King's inability to get a job -- for the two men to decide to rob a jewelry store.

From the moment he walks on stage and stands, glowering, in the center, Riggins holds our fascinated, and sometimes revulsed, attention. His physical expressiveness is extraordinary. King Hedley is at once a powerfully built man and an awkward, stumbling four-year-old. His gestures are simultaneously forceful and uncertain. King Hedley can kill without remorse. He knows he'll kill again -- except next time, he'll make it look like self-defense. But he's also nurturing a dollar's worth of seedlings in the dry earth of the blighted back yard; he's yearning to bring the child in Tonya's womb into the light; he's nonplussed when he stumbles across the grave of the man he killed and realizes that this man, too, had a family and a life. Trying to fathom these contradictions is physically painful for Hedley; just listening to other people outlining them sets his body in jerky, puzzled motion. When Tonya tells him she's unwilling to have the baby, he wants to touch her and he wants to hit her. It's painful to see the impulses contending in Riggins's psyche, and when he finally manages to take Tonya in his arms, the moment is profoundly moving.

Another soaring performance is that of Charles Weldon as Elmore, Ruby's con-man lover, returned to reclaim her. There's no way a mortal woman could resist this man. When he enters, smiling and oddly graceful, the stage lights up. King Hedley, too, is drawn to him, seeing him as something of a father figure. Elmore is as ruthless as Hedley himself, but his approach to crime is old-fashioned and calculating, his style silken. One of the most fascinating scenes in the play occurs when the two men relax together on the steps and discuss the psychological and philosophical ramifications of taking a human life.

Harvey Blanks plays Stool Pigeon, the demented old reprobate who represents the insane truth-teller or holy fool we've seen in earlier Wilson plays. It's Stool Pigeon who opens the door to the transcendent, inviting some kind of larger truth into the cramped moral universe of the play. He speaks in riddles, hinting at God's plans for humankind, exhorting King Hedley to seek "the key to the mountain." He tells us about Aunt Esther, who has lived 366 years and -- until her death in the course of the play -- seems to have the power to set the world right. He opens garbage cans so that stray dogs can feed, and digs a grave near Hedley's garden for Aunt Esther's dead black cat. Aunt Esther will return, he says, if blood flows on the cat's grave. These are all images of redemption, and they're echoed everywhere. Hedley asks bystanders several times if they can see a halo around his head. Later, he surrounds his sad little garden with strands of barbed wire -- though Mister suggests that razor wire would be more effective. The image speaks of his desperate need to protect the small shoots of life in his world and his inability to do so; it's obliquely reminiscent of Christ's crown of thorns.

And if I haven't yet mentioned Keith L. Hatten's bumptious, ingratiating Mister, or Kim Staunton's passionate performance as Tonya -- in particular, the extraordinary monologue in which she explains to King why she does not want another child -- or the way Gwen Harris (playing Ruby for Marlene Warfield on the night I saw the play) alternated querulousness and rueful humor in her role, it's not because these actors were anything short of marvelous.

It's a great gift to the city that the Denver Center Theatre Company has set itself the task of staging all of August Wilson's plays under the skilled direction of Israel Hicks. It's also exciting that the company is building a cadre of actors and technical artists who are sensitive and responsive to the work. It's not by accident that critics have been throwing around names like Shakespeare and Aeschylus in response to Wilson's oeuvre. He has brought unmatched eloquence and breadth of vision to his evocation of the lives of black people in America. In King Hedley II, he has created a genuine tragic hero -- flawed, larger than life, doomed by a world too small to hold his vast passions. "They have tied me to a stake," Hedley might have said with Macbeth. "I cannot fly/But bearlike I must fight the course."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman