Ezzard Mosely, Stacey Hopson, Gary Brice, & Brother Sixx in King Hedley II.
Photo courtesy Smoked Apple Theater Group.
King Hedley II
By August Wilson
Directed by Mary Baunjoko
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
When Smoked Apple Theater Group announced August Wilson’s King Hedley II as its first full-length production; it was a bold, ambitious move for a company who had previously only mounted programs of short plays by local writers. Taking on a work by the most important African-American playwright is a plunge into the deep end of the pool, but Smoked Apple manages to not sink, but swim.
King Hedley (Ezzard Mosely) is an ex-con in 1985 Pittsburgh who seeks to get his life back on track after the penitentiary. His plan of action involves selling stolen refrigerators to finance a video store and an even riskier robbery he is planning with his buddy, Mister (Gary Brice). He also desires to start a family with his wife, Tonya (Angela Williams), and the conflict between them over her pregnancy provides some of the most resonant passages in this production.
Hedley lives with his mother, Ruby (Stacey Hopson), who is visited by old flame Elmore (Alphaeus Green), who brings with him a desire to reveal long-buried truths to King that are not likely to go down easy. That history is of crucial importance in Wilson’s writing, a ten-play cycle of stories covering African-American history in the 20th century. This play connects directly to Seven Guitars, set in the 1940’s and also concerned with a recently incarcerated man attempting to rebuild his life, and featuring Ruby and Hedley’s father as characters.
Director Mary Baunjoko’s production is long on passion, even while missing some of these deeper strains. It may be, arguably, enough to simply tell this story in a straightforward fashion without the subtext of the other plays, but the focus seems to ride on the first layers of the material without probing too much. The performances connected to the audience the night I attended with the immediacy of a television drama, with the primarily black audience responding with vocal recognition throughout.
For me, as a white man, to attain this level of identification with Wilson’s plays in the past has perhaps depended on a level of quality in the productions that built these characters and their worlds in sufficient detail and atmosphere to pull me in to the story. And that’s the job of theatre. So it was fascinating to watch this production, with cardboard sets, minimal technical resources, and challenges in pacing and acting performances, speak in such a specific cultural language to black audience members. It challenges the distanced, academic perspective of the reviewer.
A cast who makes the characters live can overcome low-rent production values, and this is King Hedley’s strongest aspect. The work of the entire ensemble is nothing if not passionate, even if some of Wilson’s carefully constructed monologues lack the build in energy that is called for, missing the fullest potential of the text. There were some missed cues, slightly confused moments, and occasionally static blocking that point to the formidable demand for narrative sustainability in a nearly three-hour play and the strain it may have placed on the company. As intimate as it is, King Hedley II is also epic in its themes of redemption and revenge. The play also summons up the Greeks in its embrace of tragedy, a point underscored by the character of Stool Pigeon (Brother Sixx), who functions as both Oracle and Chorus, and is given the first and final words of the text.
Ezzard Mosely is a fierce and intractable King, and Angela Williams brings sass and integrity to Tonya, even if both actors display a penchant for shooting the moon emotionally, going 0 to 60 when a slower acceleration would have been more effective. In her first role onstage, Stacey Hopson is a fine Ruby. Even if her inexperience is detectable, she seems to understand the character. Gary Brice is the smoothest, most professional performance as Mister, the character with perhaps the least dimension. Alphaeus Green is also a reliable pro, but the fact that he is a last-minute, still-on-book-substitute for an ailing cast member necessarily limits his impact. From Mr. Green’s previous work, I would expect him to rise more fully to the occasion in the second weekend of the run, and he may help lift King Hedley II closer to where it needs to be. Brother Sixx satisfactorily fulfills the balance of Sage and Fool called for in Stool Pigeon.
Smoked Apple visibly grows in this production, and whatever its shortcomings, it is an effort to be proud of. Better to risk overreaching than to remain a wallflower among local theatre companies, especially when you seek to represent a sorely underserved part of the artistic community.
King Hedley II
March 4th @ 7:30pm
March 5th @ 7:30pm
March 6th @ 6:30pm
Macrh 10th @ 7:30pm
March 11th @ 7:30pm
March 12th @ 2:00pm AND 7:30pm
March 13th @ 6:30pm
Admission: $20 (preorder your tickets and recieve a 10% discount)
For tickets go to -http://smokedappletheater.wix.com/2016
Smoked Apple Theater Group
At Vault 1031
1031 South Sixth Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on ARTxFM/WXOX-LP, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.