Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Penumbra produces a King Hedley II
of Hamlet proportions

Ernie Hudson and Rhodessa Jones
August Wilson's King Hedley II is a huge play: huge in its issues, huge in it's humanity and immense in its tragedy. Although not flawless, Penumbra Theatre's superb ensemble acting in a powerful production swept me deep into the world of the play's six characters.

Hedley II's issues concern the effect on lives when a community loses its connections to its cultural roots, the cycle of failure and violence in generations of poverty, and what happens to a man when he's emasculated by a majority that treats him like dirt and expects him to be no better than dirt for the rest of his life.

In prose that sings like music, Wilson confronts ingrained racism more directly in Hedley II than in his other plays that chronicle the black American experience in the 20th century.

The play is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh on Ken Evan's convincingly detailed set of two tenement brick houses. The impoverished physical and emotional terrain of Hedley II is achingly familiar from Penumbra's last play, Seven Guitars, in the theater's 25th anniversary season of Wilson plays. The scruffy yard is a place of male swagger, brittle egos and illicit guns.

The main character, King, has a sense of himself that's as fragile as cracked glass. He's an ex-con. He gunned down a man who first slighted him, then razor-slashed his face through his left eye. Now, King and his friend Mister are saving to buy a video store by selling stolen refrigerators at $200 a go. King has a strong desire to make his way legitimately in the world, but he has no resources materially and few personally with which to seed his ambition. Pushed to find money fast, he and Mister rob a jewelry store and, just as Hamlet crosses a point of no return once he murders Polonius, King crosses a line with this robbery.

Adding to his problems, he has a confrontational relationship with his mother, Ruby, a warm, sexual woman, played by Rhodessa Jones. Ruby has returned after leaving King to be brought up by his recently deceased aunt, and she's full of too-late affection. His wife is pregnant with a child that she doesn't want to bring into a hostile world, and his murder victim's cousin is out gunning for him. Like Hamlet, the world stacks up against King with crushing weight as he struggles to turn his life around.

Muscular Lester Purry as King drips pride and fury; he delivers King's magnificent monologues with fierce passion. King is the son, in spirit, of the unstable visionary and two-time murderer, King Hedley, from Seven Guitars. The unnecessary revelation of King's true paternity by Elmore causes the play's shattering dénouement. Elmore is an ill con man who has returned to claim his on-again, off-again love for King's mother. He's been an occasional father figure to King, but he carries cancerous old jealousies and resentments. In this hand picked cast, Ernie Hudson plays the smooth-tongued trickster, Elmore, with slick panache.

But the show-stealer is Tonia Jackson as King's beautiful wife. She speaks her two monologues with such fire and feeling that tears flow down her cheeks. In the first speech she justifies not wanting to keep her pregnancy because she knows all too well what misery that child's life will bring. In the second, she pleads with King to simply be a man. She doesn't want his money. She wants him to be a man who she can rely on to stay out of prison, to come home and to be a father to their child. Jackson is as fine an actor as any in the region.

In a role that's like Hamlet's steady friend Horatio, David Alan Anderson plays Mister, King's partner in crime, a man with a knack for defusing tense situations.

An archetypal figure recurs in Wilson's plays, an earthy bones-man, an eccentric who works charms that are rooted in African tradition and who effects change through the sprinkling of blood. The challenge is to differentiate in the playing of these characters, and Stool Pigeon, though played affectingly by James Craven, feels derivative of Hambone in Two Trains Running and Hedley in Seven Guitars.

Overarching the action is the death of the unseen 366 year-old Aunt Esther, a seer who has rooted the community in its African past and whose absence enlarges the action of the play in the same way that the ghost of Hamlet's father deepens Hamlet.

Master Wilson producer Lou Bellamy directs Hedley II and draws magnificent performances from his gifted cast. But Malo's sound design is often overwrought and intrusive; the same holds true for moments in Mark Dougherty's overly melodramatic light design. The poetry of Wilson's language and the fineness of Penumbra's acting carry their own weight and require only light touches in tech support.

This vast play ends in tragedy, but the very shedding of blood opens the possibility of renewal.

King Hedley II May 29 - June 29. Thursdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 8:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 2:00 p.m. $26 - $30.Penumbra Theatre Company, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call: 651-224-3180. Online @

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Elizabeth Weir

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