Thursday, March 15, 2007

Less Than August: King Hedley II (Signature Theatre Company, New York) and Gem of the Ocean (Arena Stage, DC)

Why did August Wilson jump the shark?

This question might be better suited to a biographer than a critic, but when Wilson, the most critically acclaimed African-American playwright in theatrical history, made his fateful leap and where he finally landed are somewhat easier to determine. Wilson's best-known works -- Fences, The Piano Lesson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, even a more controversial play like Seven Guitars -- lie on one side of the divide, while generally ignored plays like King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and (as far as I can tell) Radio Golf lie on the other. (The ramshackle comedy-drama Jitney, an early play that Wilson revised in 2000, late in his career, straddles the gap, combining the crackling, character-driven action of his best efforts with the pointless pontification of his lesser ones.

Most of Wilson's efforts are classified under the ten-play "Pittsburgh cycle," which purports to cover African-American experience in the twentieth century, decade by decade, through the prism of a single Black neighborhood in the Iron City. The continuity of form, themes, characters and setting seems to give Wilson's plays an inflated importance: These naturalistic, family dramas with strong Christian themes are also viewed as historical and racial documents, authentic testimony about the Black Experience in America. Wilson's plays, however, can't bear that sort of ideological and intellectual weight: Wilson (at his best) is not a dramatist of ideas, but of characters -- and when, as in his later plays, his theatrical craft is pressed into the service of historical ideology, we often find that he has nothing of note to say. There's a world of difference between the sturdy virtue of a play like Fences and the terminal dullness of King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean.

The plot of King Hedley II, such as it is, involves the titular "King" (Russell Hornsby), an ex-con who may or may not be descended from a character in Wilson's earlier Seven Guitars. As King attempts to resell stolen refrigerators, start a small video-rental business, and come to terms with his past, an elderly con man with a dark secret (Stephen McKinley Henderson) arrives in town and resumes his long dormant affair with King's mother (Lynda Gravatt). Naturally, King's partner-in-crime Mister (Curtis McClarin) and love interest Tonya (Cherise Boothe) have agendas and concerns of their own. Add the efforts of Stool Pigeon (Lou Myers), the religious lunatic next door, to provide what he considers a proper blood sacrifice for recently deceased neighborhood matriarch Aunt Ester -- about whom, more later. The result is not just a mess, it's mostly dramatically inert.

Chronologically, King Hedley occurs at an unspecified point in the 1980s, which places it near the end of Wilson's "Pittsburgh cycle." The decade has been widely viewed as a low point for African-Americans -- a more accurate title for Hedley might be "Bad Times" -- though no one to my knowledge has really bothered to explain why. It's taken for granted in most circles that with Ronald Reagan in the White House, the situation in America's Black houses would necessarily be dire. Fortunately, Wilson's own thesis isn't quite that simple: He seems to believe that the 1980s put an end to the notion of African-American culture and community, both of which are apparently embodied in the unseen neighborhood matriarch Aunt Ester. (This isn't much of a notion, I'm afraid, and when we finally meet Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean, she isn't much of a character either.) Still, if Hedley is intended on some level as a history play, it fails at history's central task: namely, the depiction of social change.

One suspects, rather, that Wilson wrote Hedley as an homage to classical tragedy, and to be fair, its final scene does have the tautness and the power of Greek drama. But oh, the tedium we must endure to get to it: Wilson never bothers to show what he can more easily tell, and he piles on speeches, monologues and soliloquies for nearly three hours. Often Hedley feels more like a cattle-call audition than a proper play, with one actor delivering a five- to ten-minute piece, then another, then another. And with so many disparate elements at work here, it's not always possible to keep characters and motivations straight.

That said, I can't imagine a better production of Hedley than the one currently playing at New York's Signature Theatre Company. STC has assembled a perfect cast, with special honors going to Lynda Gravatt's slyly sexy turn as mother Ruth, and Stephen McKinley Henderson's barn-burning performance as amoral Elmore. The Peter Norton Space provides the sort of intimate venue where Wilson's characters can have the greatest impact, and David Gallo's set design expresses the world of the play with elegance and economy. Still, as one character says early on, "It look like everything going every which way, and ain't nobody in charge."

(more to come)

Gem of the Ocean, Wilson's immediate follow-up to Hedley, may well be his worst play. This history play with magical-realist overtones sprawls out in several directions and never satisfactorily explores any of them. Gem introduces viewers to Wilson's matriarchal "Aunt Ester" -- who is 285 years old as the play opens.

The difference, one suspects, is that in the later plays Wilson has changed his mission.

(more to come)

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