August Wilson is not a playwright to whom words come sparingly. He has for some time now been engaged on a project of articulating the black American experience in a cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the last century; the most recent of these to be seen here was his "1970s" piece Jitney, in an American production which visited the National Theatre last year. Its 1980s successor King Hedley II was nipped, tucked and pruned on its journey to Broadway in 1999, down to the three-hour version which now receives its British première at the Tricycle.
This is not to say that Wilson is a prolix or verbose writer, just that he has so many stories to tell to add up to The Story. Here, as the title character, his family and associates weave their sometimes difficult ways through the margins of legality in 1985 Pittsburgh, they frequently interrupt the main action to recount past events: common references to the recently deceased community linchpin Aunt Esther, King's memories of his dead wife who sold him out, his current woman Tonya's bleak vision of bringing up a future child in this grim world, and his mother Ruby's recollections of her past, including her doomed four-decade on-off relationship with gambler and conman Elmore. (The latter two characters' first meeting in the 1940s, alluded to here, is portrayed in Wilson's Seven Guitars, not yet staged in this country.)
It's story and character that preoccupy Wilson more than drama; when he goes deliberately for drama or symbolism he can feel self-conscious and laboured, as with King's attempts to grow seedlings in the "good dirt" of his backyard or the overworked and rather melodramatic ending (a trait this play shares with Jitney). But in director Paulette Randall's third Wilson production for the Tricycle, the unobtrusive journey to that conclusion is compelling.
Nicholas Monu's King is driven by an urge to claim an identity and a lineage for himself: that Roman numeral in the title is important to him. He has served seven years in prison for murdering a man who would not call him by his proper name, and feels too easily justified in violence when not granted what he sees as his due. The problems come when his fine though modest intentions get entangled with his pride and his bludgeoning sense of the path of righteousness. (Next-door neighbour Stool Pigeon, played by Stephan Kalipha, has his own odd version of that path, blending obsessive newspaper collection with biblical quotation and voodoo-like ritual.)
King's unlikely nemesis is Jospeh Marcell's Elmore, an unflappable hustler in chalk-stripe suit and co-respondent shoes, just as selfish as the younger man but given to skating over opposition rather than smashing through it. Ruby and Tonya are in their ways facets of the modern archetype of the long-suffering African-American woman, but Pat Bowie's Ruby in particular is no less powerful for that. Although the characters never look beyond their own community, a feeling of social and Reaganomic bleakness pervades to match the fatalistic personal aspect of the play. Not a cheering or heartening vision, then, but for all that a strangely and deeply enjoyable play and production.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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