Theater Preview: Murder and mayhem in ‘King Hedley II’ –

U of L’s African-American Theatre offers up its version
of the August Wilson play

Kamilah Lee Long and Robert O’Bryan Greene: in “King Hedley II.”Photo by Michael F. Hottois 

Kamilah Lee Long and Robert O’Bryan Greene: in “King Hedley II.”Photo by Michael F. Hottois 

It’s a good time to be an August Wilson fan in Louisville. Even as “Gem of the Ocean” currently runs at Actors Theatre, a very different sort of Wilson play is about to hit the stage at the Thrust Theater as U of L’s African-American Theatre Program’s season opener.

“King Hedley II” is a modern tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Second to last in Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh” cycle, it’s about an ex-con who comes home in the 1980s to find the Hill District has gone to pot and is now riddled with crime, teenage pregnancy, death and despair.

Greed may have been good for some during the Reagan years, but here it leads to murder and mayhem. Hedley and his friend, Mister, sell stolen refrigerators to raise money for a video business (the next big thing in the ’80s). He also tries to grow a garden in unfertile soil. Hedley can’t win. He and the other characters are trapped in the mundane, yet are unfazed by mystical events, as when they learn a 336-year-old woman has died. Hedley’s mother, Ruby, takes back a former lover who once jilted her and then killed her husband. Tonya, Hedley’s wife, laments the difficulties of raising a child in these troubled times. His neighbor, Stool Pigeon, collects old newspapers to preserve history. They keep looking to the past for their identities. There’s no easy answer to determining the merits of this position.

Easily the grittiest and darkest of Wilson’s works, “King Hedley II” nevertheless informs and entertains even during its most depressing moments. It’s not a happy story, and its characters are not happy people. Wilson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, and for those seeking dry bread rather than sweet cake, “King Hedley II” will not disappoint. “The play is timely for Louisville,” said Lundeana Thomas, director of U of L’s African-American Theatre Program. “It touches on black crime but is also a play of passion about the identity crisis faced by many African Americans.”

Paul Carter Harrison, a renowned expert on African-American theater and a fine playwright in his own right (his “Great MacDaddy” won an Obie), will direct. Currently a professor emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, Harrison helped conceive and develop Melvin Van Peebles’ “Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death” for the New York stage.

Robert O’Bryan Greene, a third-year MFA student in Performance and a member of the U of L Repertory Company, is taking on the lead role as his graduate thesis. Clyde Tyrone Harper (Stool Pigeon) was nominated for an award by the Detroit Free Press for his role in another Wilson play, “Two Trains Running.”
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