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By Robert W. Bethune, guest critic
If you would like to get to know six people to the bottom of their hearts, including the best about them and the worst about them in exquisite balance, sit down with August WilsonÕs characters in ÒKing Hedley II.Ó You will not regret it.
Clint Eastwood defined tragedy as Òsomething gets started and you canÕt stop it.Ó ThatÕs what happens here. A black man in Pittsburgh in the 1980s has simple ambitions: to open a video store, to keep his marriage together, to bring the baby his wife is carrying into life, to raise flowers in his backyard and to maintain his sense of his own honor. He is willing to do those things according to the law of his own heart. The law of the society around him, particularly the white manÕs law, is part of the problem, not part of the solution. There is a rage in this man, a fire that could take him a long, long way in the world, or a very short way indeed.
The characters around him also live by their own rules. His mother Ruby, his wife Tonya, his friend Mister, his neighbor known as Stool Pigeon, and his motherÕs friend Elmore all live by their own laws, and in the end, those laws do not mesh. From the very first line of the play, all of these people are on collision courses. None of them will so far betray themselves as to swerve, yet none of them sees where they are going. It all resolves in a final moment as inevitable as it is surprising.
Theo Williamson does something absolutely crucial to the success of the play: He makes King likeable. He lets us see the rage burning in this man without ever making him a monster.
James Cowans as Elmore makes another crucial combination: He shows us the con-man and sharp dealer that Elmore unquestionably is, while also making us see that there is a core in this deceitful man that can only be called honesty. He plays by the rules as he knows them.
The women Ruby and Tonya, played by Rhonda English and Yolanda Jack respectively, confront their harsh worlds from the most fundamental dilemma of all — whether or not to bring life into it, and what to do about the life they have brought into it. Like the men, they base their decisions on inner law as they know it, but their laws differ both from their men and from each other, which helps drive them toward the final collision.
Stool PigeonÕs law is the law of God; the man knows his Bible like the back of his hand, yet his law cannot change anyoneÕs path.
Even Mister, played with soft desperation by Walter Lindsey, who seems to have no convictions, still has an awareness of what the rules are, and shows that his rules differ from KingÕs.
There is a difference between tragic and sad. I recommend this play as an excellent demonstration of the difference.
ÔKing Hedley IIÕ
Plowshares Theatre Company at the City Theatre, 2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Thu.-Sun., through March 4. Tickets: $15-$28. For information: 313-872-0279 or http://www.plowshares.org