by Brenda W. Clough
I took in the Arena Stage‘s production of King Hedley II in February, when it was starting its well-reviewed run. I am not familiar with the plays of the late August Wilson, and it was clearly the time to become more culturally literate.
However, there is a virtue to coming to a work with an open (or, more uncharitably, an empty) mind. This is the eighth play in Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, and the dangers of dropping in in the middle of a series is well-known in our circles. Would anybody get anything out of viewing the middle Hobbit movie by itself? So I can see, in this play, all the places where surely events would have more resonance if only I had seen the earlier plays in the cycle. Wilson himself is a major voice in the African American arts scene, and some of the things he’s saying go right over my Asian-American female head.
But a lot of his material speaks to us all: the drive to make a life, to win some of the good things, to wring good out of evil. The failure of the American system to give opportunity to the disenfranchised among us — this play is set in the 1980s, when Reaganism was going to be the tide that lifted all the boats — is a theme. All the supports that society is supposed to offer are visibly failing King Hedley, the frustrated ex-con hustling in the poverty-stricken streets of Pittsburgh. The economy offers no jobs to a black man with a criminal record and a nasty scar. Spirituality, as voiced by the weird Stool Pigeon, has wandered off into the wilderness and no longer addresses the people. And without money — the driving force behind all the characters — there is no possibility of a decent family life and the American-dream middle-class existence.
The playgoer can sit in the seats and watch King make wrong decisions one right after the other. No, man, don’t invest in video stores! Why the heck didn’t you go to college — the heartfelt cry of the Asian mother — you could’ve got into Pitt, even if CMU is unaffordable. The drama is in the inevitability of the oncoming disaster. We know it’s all going to go down the drain, it’s just a question of how the characters get there.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.