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Anthony Chase: Past haunts the present in Wilson's 'King Hedley II'

Before his death in 2005, playwright August Wilson completed the task of writing a cycle of 10 extraordinary plays about African American life, each representing a different decade of the 20th century.

"King Hedley II," which is set in 1985, is the longest of these, among the most heavily symbolic, and possibly the most difficult to perform, as it rhythmically alternates between casual conversation and grand poetic arias of monologue.

In accepting the task of staging "King Hedley II," the Paul Robeson Theatre has taken no shortcuts. The production boasts the directorial return of Edward G. Smith, after a substantial absence from Buffalo’s stages. Christina Foster, who has emerged as one of our city’s most capable leading ladies, plays Tonya, a role originated in 2001 by Viola Davis.

Wonderful Renita Shadwick returns after several years’ absence from the Robeson stage to play Ruby, a former nightclub singer originally played by Leslie Uggams. Hugh Davis also returns to the stage after a long absence to play the title role. Harlan Penn provides a handsome realistic set.

The play reminds us of the ways in which the distant past can continue to haunt the present. "King Hedley II" is a follow-up to Wilson’s earlier play, "Seven Guitars," picking up characters and events from that play, set in 1948, and showing how those events continue to resonate nearly forty years later.

Living in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, King Hedley is trying to piece his life together after serving a prison sentence for murder. He and his friend, Mister, are selling refrigerators that have probably been stolen, but they don’t seem to be able to save enough money to buy a video store. Meanwhile, the aunt who raised Hedley has died and her sister, Ruby, Hedley’s biological mother, has moved in. Hedley’s wife, Tonya, is supporting him. Ruby’s old suitor, Elmore, has returned to town.

The Robeson production is notable for the way it luxuriates in Wilson’s poetically expressive language and for the vividness of the character portrayals.

Hugh Davis is excellent as King Hedley, imbuing the character with simmering rage that erupts dangerously at key moments, exposing the tragic flaw that will be his undoing.

Christina Foster gives another in a succession of performances distinguished by reality and nuance. As Tonya, she lands some particularly powerful notes in her impassioned speech to Hedley about why she does not want to be the mother of his child.

Al Garrison is affecting as Stool Pigeon, the neighbor and resident evangelist and visionary. His words both open and close the play. In this role, originated on Broadway by Buffalo’s Stephen McKinley Henderson, Garrison gives us a man who is simultaneously naïve and wise.

Jon Cesar brings playful charm and offers constant comic relief in his portrayal of Hedley’s loyal friend, Mister.

Renita Shadwick gives us a multi-layered portrayal of Ruby. This character, one of two who also appears in "Seven Guitars," carries the full history of this family drama in her past, and also holds its deepest secrets. This is an artful and deceptively relaxed performance.

Ruby has sacrificed dearly, but wears her history with total nonchalance, dismissing her past, including an abandoned singing career (and an abandoned child), as if they were trifles. She plays with a gun as if it were a toy. She views the opportunity of a late life romance with the knowing skepticism unique to a woman of experience. But the depth of her true feelings, and the degree to which this drama revolves around Ruby is profound, and Shadwick walks this narrative expertly.

Where the production falters is in pace. A script that typically takes three hours to perform, here clocks in at over three and a half. At times the monologues seem more like feats of memorization than like models of textual interpretation. This is exacerbated by the loss of a key actor, just days before this production was to open. Actor Vincenzo L. McNeill has stepped up to the plate to play Elmore, a hustler with an eye for Ruby (and another role for Stephen McKinley Henderson, who played Elmore in the 2007 off-Broadway revival).

With script in hand, he gives an impressive reading of the role, bringing clarity and import to the words. Nonetheless, the difference between reading and full out acting is palpable, and this encumbrance adds to the pacing issues in the production overall.

Still, to see a full staging of this play is a joy and a privilege. This production will yield great pleasures if you set your mind to sit back and indulge in the richness of August Wilson.

REVIEW

"King Hedley II"

3 stars (out of four)

Presented by Paul Robeson Theatre through Dec. 2 in the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 general, $25 senior and students with valid ID and $15 for children. For tickets, aaccbuffalo.org.

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