Miami’s M Ensemble is wrapping up its 10-year exploration of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” plays, rich dramas chronicling African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, with its new production of King Hedley II.
Though humor, abundant truth and spiritual forces infuse each of the plays in the late Pulitzer Prize-winner’s great career achievement, King Hedley II is one of his darkest, longest plays. Yet thanks to John Pryor’s astute direction and the work of a powerhouse cast, M Ensemble’s production is riveting, start to finish.
Set in Pittsburgh’s gritty Hill District in 1985, the play orbits around its title character. King Hedley II (the magnetic Ethan Henry) is a frustrated ex-con who did time for murdering the neighborhood rival who had slashed him, leaving a huge scar on his face and a deeper one on his soul. Even in watchful repose or forever-fleeting moments of happiness, Henry’s King conveys the tension of a volcano ready to erupt.
This is a man who can’t move past the death of his true love, though he has married again and is going to become a father — if his wife Tonya (Makeba Pace) decides she can go through with bringing a baby into a rotten world. King has justifiable abandonment issues and rails at Ruby (Brandiss Seward), the woman who is making a too-little, too-late stab at reclaiming her place as his mother. He has desires and dreams but doesn’t seem capable of getting from A to B without a detour into crime.
Circling Wilson’s tormented King are his childhood pal and partner in crime, Mister (Samuel Umoh); the flashy Elmore (Sheaun McKinney), an unreliable gambler who happens to be the love of Ruby’s life; and Stool Pigeon (André L. Gainey), King’s hoarder-neighbor and one of Wilson’s eccentric prophets.
Wilson wrote King Hedley II and the other plays in the cycle with the length and depth of a man consciously crafting a dramatic legacy. He famously wrote and rewrote his plays through multiple regional productions before sending them on to Broadway, and you can hear the craftsmanship in King Hedley II, as he drops names, references and clues that will blossom into what amounts to verbal arias for his vividly rendered characters.
A Wilson play seems to inspire M Ensemble’s artists, and King Hedley II is no exception. Set and lighting designer Gregory Contreas (along with scenic designer Jodi Dellaventura) creates a hardscrabble world that says these people have no money and even less hope. The rocky, barren soil outside their beat-up row houses is another symbol of their difficult lives.
The actors mine the riches of Wilson’s distinctive poetic-musical language, Henry playing the words like a virtuoso. Seward and McKinney are too young for their roles, but both actors are otherwise terrific: She’s a force of nature who speaks her mind, like it or not; he’s a feckless, sly guy whose lifelong fear of commitment is bumping up against the end that awaits us all. A furious Pace tears into Tonya’s despairing monologue about the deadliness of life in the neighborhood. Umoh provides understated comic relief as Mister, and Gainey rants with the best of ‘em as Wilson’s wise madman.
Like a company slowly working its way through William Shakespeare’s huge canon, M Ensemble has come to the end of Wilson’s road. But honchos Patricia E. Williams and Shirley Richardson are contemplating future Wilson seasons, revisiting several of the plays in new productions. Given the richness of the material and the treasures it offers actors and audiences, why not?