Review: August Wilson’s Epic Play King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East

The Pulitzer prize winner August Wilson (Fences) was one of the most influential voices of black America, Wilson who died in 2005 was known for chronicling the lives of African Americans in the 20th century.  King Hedley II one of his lesser known works and his 8th play, is a big play for Theatre Royal Stratford East . An epic tale of grand proportion, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, in Nadia Fall’s King Hedley II we see Lenny Henry roar as Elmore and the superb Aaron Pierre in the title role together with Martina Laird’s Ruby they maintain an exhilarating tension throughout.  Pierre’s King’s constant turmoil and rage is like a cauldron boiling over. Set in 1980’s Pittsburgh King lives with his estranged mother Ruby and his wife Cheryl Skeetes’s Tonya.

Peter McKintosh’s set is King’s backyard over the fence is his bible quoting neighbour  Leo Wringer’s Stool Pigeonwho open’s the play with a magnificent speech setting the tone for the tragic events to follow.  In King’s world the city is a dangerous place where guns are a necessity even for the women, there is a low life expectancy.  Tonya says she knows the plight of the women of this city and the pain they have endured losing sons to violence and police brutality, as she notes says “this is not the world into which she would like to bring a child”.

There is no respite for the black people in 1980’s Pittsburgh King thinks that living on the minimal wage makes them no better than slaves that were their forefathers. But King and best friend Dexter Flanders’s Mister have ambitions they want to open a video store and the only way to get the cash is to go down the criminal route to raise the money, $10.00 dollars is very hard to come by. As King says the white man has the money.

It is not long before Elmore returns to the family home played with a charismatic upbeat rhythm, Lenny Henry’s Elmore is smooth and charming even as the aging 66 year old, he broke Ruby’s heart once and he would do it again, a stand out performance from Henry only rivals Aaron Pierre’s King and the pain he endures reliving the crime that cost him 7 years in prison, he wants redemption for the murder he committed and dreams of having a halo. Both Cherrelle Skeete’s Tonya and Martina Laird as Ruby add to the strong performances. Laird’s Ruby takes you back to her youth and her dreams of becoming a Jazz singer, Laird makes it believable. Dexter Flanders’s Mister gives the dark tones of the play a little light humour. This work by August Wilson is filled with symbolism: like King’s patch of seeds that he is growing that never grows and to protect it he covers it with barbed wire and then the burial the black cat right next to Kings patch of earth, life is hard and Wilson’s clever play presents layers and layers of despair for its black residents.  Nadia Fall’s King Hedley is a woeful tale in which she weaves a little magic, A strong contender for a west end transfer, brilliant execution all round. Definitely a play to catch this summer, .

Performing alongside Lenny Henry are Aaron Pierre as King Hedley, Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Cherrelle Skeete and Leo Wringer. Written by August Wilson, Directed by Nadia Fall. Booking to 15th June 2019

 

 

 

 

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