University Theatre at N.C. State will present the Triangle premiere of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright August Wilson's King Hedley II, directed by Dr. Patricia C. Caple, Nov. 6-16 in Thompson Theatre. Dr. Caple says Wilson, who won his 1987 Pulitzer for Fences and his 1990 Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson, granted University Theatre special permission to produce this unpublished script, for which there is no "acting edition."
"With King Hedley," Dr. Caple says, "I will have directed all eight of the available plays be August Wilson."
She adds, "King Hedley is the eighth play of August Wilson's 10-play cycle that chronicles, decade by decade, the 20th-century African-American experience. King Hedley examines the frustrations and disenfranchisement of inner-city blacks in the age of Reaganomics and COLA [cost of living adjustment] wars."
After premiering at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in December 1999 and playing the Seattle Repertory Theatre in February 2000, King Hedley II debuted at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway on May 1, 2001 and ran through July 1, 2001. It was nominated for six Tony® Awards (including Best Play) and won one Tony and two Drama Desk Awards — all three for acting. King Hedley II was also a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In reviewing the Broadway production, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote: "Voices go hurtling to heaven in August Wilson's King Hedley II. It is a grand drama of the underclass, filled with a ferocity and passion rarely found in new plays today. You will hear some of the finest monologues ever written for the American stage, speeches that build gritty, often brutal details into fiery patterns of insight.... [King Hedley II] seeks — and often finds — the heights of tragedy and mysticism in the life of the common man. And while only God may strike the chords that reverberate through the scheme of life, Mr. Wilson renders the human notes with more than a touch of divinity."
In The New Yorker, John Lahr raved: "In the age of the soundbite, August Wilson has become that most endangered of rare birds - the storyteller. His plays are not talking textbooks; they paint the big picture from the little incidents of daily life. And in telling the story of African-Americans in the 20th century, he has become one of our greatest playwrights."
As in all of August Wilson's 10 plays, with the sole exception of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the setting for King Hedley II is the once-bustling but now moribund Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"At one time," says Dr. Caple, "Pittsburgh's Hill District was a thriving Mecca for black people, but it is a blighted area now, and African-Americans make up 95 percent of its population today. At one time, the Hill District was a creative hothouse, where the fruits of black culture could thrive. That happened particularly from the 1930s through much of the 1950s. But most of the fun of living in Pittsburgh's Hill District was obliterated with the beginning of urban renewal."
When the curtain rises on King Hedley II, Dr. Caple says, "The time is 1985. King Hedley [Damion Sledge] has recently been released from prison, and at this time he's struggling to carve out a life for himself as a respectable citizen and business owner. Of course, to stay afloat, he is selling stolen appliances, mainly refrigerators. He also has plans to rob a jewelry store, so he can finally have the resources to open a video store and obtain his piece of the American Dream.
"In the course of the play," Dr. Caple says, "he is unfortunately swept up in a dangerous chain of events that spin out of control, with tragic consequences.
She says, "I think King Hedley is important, because it deals with many of the issues people are dealing with today, such as abortion, crime and, particularly black-on-black crime; the economic situation and how it impacts, particularly in the black population. It deals with the hopes and dreams of these people in the Hill District... and how the economic powers have them hemmed in.... They are doomed, number one, because they are black and, number two, because of their socioeconomic status.
"King Hedley has been compared with a Greek tragedy, such as Oedipus Rex," Dr. Caple claims, "but we know that in Greek drama, the tragic hero must have a tragic flaw and there must be a reversal of circumstances. King Hedley has a tragic flaw — he's black — and he's hemmed in by the socioeconomic depression that is forced on him and other African-Americans. But there is not going to be any reversal for him. His fate was decided the moment he was born."
Dr. Caple confesses, "I have never read anything by August Wilson that I did not like. He deals with the actual feelings, with the actual lives, with the spirit and the souls of these people, and how their lives unfolded in the Hill District. He's a truthful writer. He doesn't write pretty little stuff, because its cute. He bases his writings on true facts, and he pulls out the guts of these people and throws it out there for us.
"I think that his writings have universality of appeal," she adds. "You can be anybody — regardless of what station in life that you come from — and you can relate to the situations that these people find themselves in. [Wilson] is long winded, but hopefully these lives are absorbing enough to make you forget [that]."
Staging King Hedley II from a manuscript, without the usual stage directions and the authorial commentary and instructions of an acting addition, is a real challenge to the University Theatre production team. Besides director Patricia Caple, who doubles as co-sound designer with Jerry Blackmon, the UT creative team for this show includes set designer John McIlwee, lighting designer Terri Janney, costume designer Ida Bostian.
Dr. Caple also credits Pittsburgh native and NCSU faculty member Dr. Daniel DeJoy, who conducted a workshop and made some presentations on the Hill District, with helping the theater make its depiction of inner-city life, circa 1985, more realistic.
Dr. Caple says, "The set design by John McIlwee is very, very realistic. He has captured the Hill District. It's the backyard of back porch of King Hedley's house, where he lives with his mother Ruby [Allena Pierce] and his pregnant wife Tonya [Andrea Cherry]. His house is separated by steps down to the yard.
"On the other side [of the stage] is the house of Stool Pigeon [Jerry Blackmon]. This play also deals with power and the force of God. Stool Pigeon is maniacal. Every time you see him, he is talking about the need for black people to read the newspaper, so they will know 'what went on.' When you see him, you will know that... he talks like a crazy reverend and saves newspapers, because he wants people to know what went on. One can look at him and say that he's possessed. The play deals with that issue, and the supernatural as well."
Dr. Caple says, "There's a lot of meat in this play, and it's written a bit differently than the other plays. Like in a Greek tragedy, characters have these long monologues. They have these long stories that they tell.... The stories are very rich; they have lots of information, lots of details, so it's very different from your usual play where I ask you a question and you answer it and we move on to something else, where we're exchanging dialogue. There's lots of listening that you have to do. There are lots of comic moments, too. The characters can be quite funny sometimes."
But she warns, "There is adult language in the play... and sometimes the language can get strong. It's not for children under 13-15 at all."
University Theatre at N.C. State presents King Hedley II Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 6-8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 9, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 12-15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 16, at 3 p.m. in NCSU's Thompson Theatre in Raleigh, North Carolina. $14 ($6 NCSU students and $12 seniors, other students, NCSU faculty and staff, and NCSU Alumni Association members). 919/515-1100. University Theatre: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/kinghedleyII.htm. King Hedley II: http://www.kinghedley.com/ [inactive 11/03]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=12865.