Ron OJ Parson directs another work in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, this set in the mid-80s and shining a spotlight on the impacts of mass incarceration of Black men.
At the curtain bow, the six member cast of KING HEDLEY II appeared almost stunned at the standing ovation by the audience – and depleted. They had all just joined in the last high drama scene putting their all in it—as they had for the entire performance—seeming rightfully depleted by their effort.
Painfully Accurate Script - Even More Relevant Today
Many in the audience, like this writer, were likely feeling a bit of exhaustion too. This is not only a long play, but its truth about Black experiences in America and the bleak realities of how the odds are stacked against getting ahead is wincingly painful and accurate—then as now.
Set in the mid-80’s during the Reagan era, it puts a spotlight on the systematic incarceration of Black men and the double standards that rule Black and White America. These themes emerge from banter in the shared back spaces of some modest Pittsburgh homes on the Black side of town. More than emerge, they seem to erupt. Kelvin Roston Jr. as Hedley is ever on the look for a way out of the place that his time in jail has put him—at one point tracing the narrative back even further to how his elementary school teacher steered him to be a janitor rather than a higher calling. When his wife Tonya (Kierra Bunch) waxes about why she finds no logic or joy in bringing another Black life into the world, her anguish strikes like unrelenting kicks in the gut. For this writer, it was a first peak moment among many in the stellar performances that guide us through the roller coaster of this script’s emotions.
Part of August Wilson's American Century Cycle
Students of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle will likely recognize the re-birth of characters in earlier incarnations of Wilson’s opus in updated 80’s form. This writer guesses that you do not need to be familiar with Wilson’s work or earlier plays in this Cycle to thoroughly get where Wilson’s well-drawn characters are coming from. If you’ve never met a hustler like Elmore before in your real life, A.C. Smith’s performance will leave you feeling like you and he go way back. When Dexter Zollicoffer at Stool Pigeon ends yet another homage to God by declaring him to be “…one bad MotherF**ker” you too might marvel not only at the actor’s ability but how Wilson can have him say the same line throughout the play and have its meaning morph in the context of each changing plot point.
Court Theatre Will Present Entire American Century Cycle
Ron OJ Parson directs this able cast as he has the other American Century Cycle productions at the Court. Heed the program notes made for this as for earlier productions in this cycle--- the actors must take on a language with breadth and depth more akin to Shakespeare than other works in the modern theater canon. That might be a warning flare to theater-goers who find Shakespeare too dense and just prefer scripts one might dub lite. All should be forewarned that this is a long play—very long—and so unlike the majority of plays on Chicago stages that are more typically a short less-than-90-minutes-with-no-intermission. Even with the brilliant performances and script gems galore, you too may feel a moment here or there when it is more endurance test than you might want it to be.
That said, if you care about the gross inequities in our criminal justice system, the incidents powering the Black Lives Matter movement, or the long overdue call for reparations for slavery, this is simply must-see theater.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Title: King Hedley II
By: August Wilson
Directed by: Ron OJ Parson
Thru October 13, 2019
Wed/Thurs/Fri: 7:30 p.m.
Sat/Sun: 2:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
5535 S. Ellis Ave
KIERRA BUNCH (Tonya) , RONALD L. CONNER (Mister), KELVIN ROSTON JR. (Hedley), A.C. SMITH (Elmore), TAYLAR (Ruby), DEXTER ZOLLICOFFER (Stool Pigeon)