King Hedley II

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King Hedley II
King Hedley II.jpg
Written by August Wilson
Date premiered December 11, 1999
Place premiered Pittsburgh Public Theater
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Original language English
Series The Pittsburgh Cycle
Subject a man's salvation and a quest for redemption for a family and a people
Genre Drama
Setting The Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1985

King Hedley II is a play by American playwright August Wilson, the eighth in his ten-part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play ran on Broadway in 2001 and was revived Off-Broadway in 2007.


King Hedley II premiered at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 11, 1999, and played a number of other regional theaters, including Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington before its Broadway engagement.[1]

The play opened on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre on May 1, 2001 and closed on July 1, 2001, after 72 performances and 24 previews. Directed by Marion McClinton, the cast featured Brian Stokes Mitchell (King), Leslie Uggams (Ruby), Charles Brown (Elmore), Viola Davis (Tonya), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Stool Pigeon), and Monté Russell (Mister).

The play ran off-Broadway at the Peter Norton Space, New York City, in a Signature Theatre Company production, from March 11, 2007, through April 22, 2007, in a season that featured Wilson's work.[2]

Plot synopsis[edit]

  • Tonya
  • Ruby
  • Elmore
  • King
  • Mister
  • Stool Pigeon

Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1985, it tells the story of an ex-con in Pittsburgh trying to rebuild his life. The play has been described as one of Wilson's darkest, telling the tale of a man trying to save $10,000 by selling stolen refrigerators so that he can buy a video store, as well as revisiting stories of other characters initially presented in Seven Guitars.

King Hedley II is the eighth play in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle that, decade by decade, examines African American life in the United States during the twentieth century.

King Hedley’s wish, now that he has returned to Pittsburgh from prison, is to support himself by selling refrigerators and to start a family. Some of the characters in this play were presented earlier in Seven Guitars; this leads to a bit of confusion, as Wilson anticipates that audiences will remember these characters from a play produced seven years earlier. If they fail to remember them, then they may at times be bewildered by a lack of information about them in the present play.

Despite this limitation, King Hedley II is a remarkable achievement. In the play, Wilson reached new pinnacles of expression, writing at times with the lyricism that he had been developing in his earlier work but that he had never achieved to quite the extent that he does in King Hedley II. One reviewer compared the structure of the play to that of a Gothic cathedral, with its intricate design, flying buttresses, and multipurpose gargoyles.

The play is set during the Reagan administration, with its emphasis on supply-side economics aimed at providing trickle-down benefits to all Americans. Most African Americans are still awaiting the trickling down that is supposed to improve their economic conditions.[3]

At War With Ghosts and History[edit]

Guns are brandished like toys, and the talk crackles with chatter about drive-by shootings. A burial and a killing take place onstage, and the Grim Reaper has at last claimed mighty Aunt Ester. All too soon: She was just 366 years old. Even so, the mystery of life, not death, is the true subject of August Wilson’s 3 hour play “King Hedley II,.[4]

For the men and women passing the time in the backyard of a ravaged row house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1985, life is like an ornery lover, comforting you tonight and frustrating you tomorrow. Just when you think you have it figured out, it throws another curve-ball.

“I wanted to have it where I could get a handle on it,” one character says. “It took me a long time to figure out I didn’t have to do that. I could just learn to live with life.” Another puts it this way: “Life’s got its own rhythm. It don’t always go along with your rhythm. That’s all life is ... trying to match up them two rhythms.”

The play “King Hedley II” is discursive, even by this playwright’s amiably loose-limbed standards. To compensate,the give and take among characters shooting the breeze fluidly glides into the long, often scorching arias in which history, the force that the characters in all Mr. Wilson’s plays must reckon with, suddenly erupts into the present, spreading shadows into lives that see too little sunlight as it is.

The past impinges with particular weight upon the characters of “King Hedley II,” which reverberates darkly with echoes from events depicted in “Seven Guitars,” set roughly four decades earlier. We see how powerfully Mr. Wilson illuminated the destructive legacies of history — personal and cultural — in the lives of African-Americans over the course of the 20th century.

Two characters from “Seven Guitars” reappear in this play. King’s mother Ruby has returned from an itinerant life as a singer to stake a final claim to motherhood. Her neighbor Stool Pigeon, confusinglly known as Canewell in the earlier play, has become the district’s resident evangelist, proselytizing from his battered stoop about the coming of a new messiah.

Elmore, back in Pittsburgh to resume his intermittent courtship of Ruby, was an unseen player in “Seven Guitars,” which focuses on the struggles of an ambitious young musician, Floyd Barton, to fight his way to a measure of success.

The bitter message of “King Hedley II” is that, almost 40 years on, King is still fighting the same battles that Floyd fought, against limited opportunity and the demons of self-destruction. If anything, the odds seem to have become tougher for a man from the black underclass, and easy recourse to violent crime — once an ugly undercurrent in urban culture, now endemic to it — is a still more seductive temptation.

The tensions tearing King apart are given seething physical expression, as we see King trying to live down a murder he committed, and the prison term that followed. The penny-ante work he can get isn’t enough for a down payment on his modest plan of opening a video store with his pal Mister.

Since the play was written events have imbued this dream with a measure of pathos: Video stores also first started living on borrowed time (and now do not even exist). The news that King’s girlfriend Tonya is pregnant, and seriously considering an abortion, only adds to his sense that life is determined to wear him down.

At the end of the first act a minor humiliation ignites a conflagration in King’s soul. In a powerful monologue that builds like a scene from a Verdi opera, King unleashes all the bitterness and frustration in his heart, railing against the forces that have assailed him all through his life. Prowling the stage like a caged animal, his voice boiling with anger and outrage, we see with a visceral force the acuteness of King’s pain, its terrible power to corrupt his ideals and lead him to betray his better instincts.

Nor is King the only character trying desperately to outrun the ghosts of the past. Tonya, who carries a mixture of warmth and brittle anger, also gives vent to her heart’s fury, in a similarly bravura monologue, lamenting her teenage pregnancy and the bitterness of watching her daughter making the same mistakes.

Elmore, who also served time for killing a rival for Ruby’s affections, is haunted by the knowledge that in taking another man’s life he sold short his own, courting God’s retribution. He has a puckish grifter’s humor, but a calm dignity too.

An anguished sense of the waning power of spirituality in the lives of African-Americans in the late 20th century infuses Mr. Wilson’s writing in “King Hedley II.” The death of Aunt Ester, the community’s mystic adviser, referred to throughout this cycle of plays, is its most obvious expression. And “Hedley” opens and closes with righteous orations from Stool Pigeon, who has a dandyish rectitude that is in amusing contrast to his visionary outbursts. “We give you our glory!” he cries out three times in his last monologue, calling for the light of God’s mercy on the bloody tableau that is the play’s final image.

Mr. Wilson died in 2005, having completed the last play in the cycle, “Radio Golf,” which takes place in the 1990s. The important question: will the last stage in this majestic journey point toward hope or despair? As Stool Pigeon says: “The story’s been written. All that’s left now is the playing out.”

Awards and nominations[edit]

2001 Broadway
  • Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2000 finalist)
  • Tony Award for Best Play (nomination)
  • Tony Award, Best Actor in a Play (Brian Stokes Mitchell)(nomination)
  • Tony Award, Best Actress in a Play (Leslie Uggams) (nomination)
  • Tony Award, Best Featured Actor in a Play (Charles Brown)(nomination)
  • Tony Award, Best Featured Actress in a Play, (Viola Davis) (WINNER)
  • Tony Award, Best Direction of a Play (Marion McClinton) (nomination)
  • Drama Desk Award for Best Play (nomination)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Actor in a Play (Mitchell) (nomination)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Brown) (nomination)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Davis) (WINNER)
  • Drama Desk Award Outstanding Set Design of a Play (David Gallo) (nomination)
2007 Off-Broadway
  • Audelco Award Dramatic Production of the Year (nomination)
  • Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival (nomination)



  • Wilson, August (2005). TKing Hedley II (First edition ed.). New York: Theatre Communications Group. ISBN 1-55936-261-8. 

External links[edit]