Ah, Pittsburgh! Hometown of August Wilson, and place of many rains….
Those two went hand-in-hand this past Saturday at the performance of King Hedley II I attended, which has been staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre in the backyard of August Wilson’s childhood home, on Bedford Street in the Hill District. We were all deeply absorbed in the story, when – drip drop – the storm began to blow in, umbrellas emerged from under seats, and Wali Jamal, playing Elmore, interrupted the scene, apologized for ending the show early, and sent us all scurrying for cover.
This was disappointing, as the production up until that moment had been so engaging that the threat of rain hadn’t even registered. The authenticity lent by its setting – you can’t get any more “real” for the set! – was enhanced by the actors’ relaxed playing style. Overall, the production gives you the impression of peering over a fence into the backyard and watching these folks as they go about their business, and despite the fact that the plot revs slowly and inexorably toward a melodramatic tragedy (even those who don’t know the play will feel a sense of dread building in the first half), the action has a sense of realness and groundedness in history. That this production follows on last year’s Seven Guitars in the same backyard – and picks up on that play’s characters, four decades later – only reinforces that sensation of historical authenticity.
Mark Clayton Southers, Monteze Freeland, and Dennis Robinson Jr. have co-directed a marvelous cast that includes not only Jamal – who apparently earns, with this role, the distinction of being the only actor to appear in every single play of the August Wilson Cycle (this according to Chris Rawson, who should know these things!) – but also Rico Parker as King, Sam Lothard as Mister, Sala Udin as Stool Pigeon/Canewell, Etta Cox as Ruby, and Dominique Briggs as Tonya. Special props to sound designer Mark Whitehead, whose soundscape is so cleverly integrated with the ambient urban environmental noise that it is hard to tease out which sounds are “real” and which belong only to the world of the play.
I won’t have a chance to see King Hedley IIagain before it closes, but I hope you do. There’s no other place in the world where this play could feel so steeped in, and sedimented with, the history of its place, its writer, and its fictional characters. It closes this weekend – rain, rain, stay away!