On Stage: Out of Control

by Chuck Conconi

Arena Stage’s ‘King Hedley II’ uncomfortably portrays lives lived in crime in this dark tragedy. 

Bowman Wright as King and the cast of King Hedley II at Arena Stage. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Bowman Wright as King and the cast of ‘King Hedley II’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

There is the mood of a Greek tragedy in August Wilson “King Hedley II” now at Arena Stage. Timothy Douglas’s direction and Tony Cisek’s spare staging in Arena’s theatre-in-the-round contributes to the vulnerability of the characters hopelessly caught up in predetermined lives they are unable to control.

Young writers are often advised to write about what they know and to listen carefully to the voices around them. Wilson understood that advice by focusing on his Pittsburgh neighborhood in writing his deservedly acclaimed 10 play series: the Pittsburgh Cycle. And the lyrical quality of the language attests to his discerning ear.

There is an unflinching reality to this dark tragedy we are uncomfortably watching unfold. King, a young man sensitively played by Bowman Wright, is back in the neighborhood after a prison sentence for killing a man. He is determined to find a way out of the spiraling hopelessness. He wants a family and to find a forgiveness for his crime.

He digs frantically at a patch of poor soil to plant seeds and the flowers that will grow are so important that he erects a barbed wire protective barrier around the small patch of dirt in the featureless concrete pavement that defines his enclosed world. He also has ambitions for a less desperate future and is determined to raise $10,000 to invest in a video store with his friend, Mister, (Kenyatta Rogers) who is a loyal friend but has no ambitions beyond daily existence and doing whatever it takes to survive.

King, however, is a man with a festering rage that explodes at the end of the first act when the frustrations of life makes his ambitions unattainable. He also wants his girlfriend Tonya, in Jessica Frances Dukes’ engaging performance of a young woman pregnant with a baby, to be part of the new life he envisions, but she doesn’t.

Tonya is an important player in that she represents Wilson’s focus on the consequences of living in a morass of poverty and racism. Tonya is considering an abortion and is the typical story of a woman who had suffered through a teenage pregnancy and is watching her teenage daughter make the same mistakes she made. Tonya is about to become a grandmother at 35 and cannot face attempting to raise another child. Her painful lament is eloquent when she argues, “I aint  got nuthin left to give.”

Douglas included in this remarkable cast the ever popular Washington actor, E. Faye Butler, as Ruby, King’s often acerbic mother, and Michael Anthony Williams, the smooth, likable con artist with a stronger relationship to King than he wants to accept.

Unfortunately in Wilson’s Pittsburgh, crime often seems to be the only way out of the racism and poverty that smothers the people in the neighborhood, where guns are as prevalent as pocket combs. But the slightly crazy neighborhood evangelist, Stool Pigeon, superbly performed by Andre De Shields, quotes scriptures from his newspaper cluttered stoop and speaks profound wisdom in the play’s closing lines when he says, “Life’s got its own rhythm.”

‘King Hedley II continues through March 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St., SW. Tickets are $50 and available at 202-488-3300 and online here

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