For nearly 20 years, August Wilson has been writing operas cunningly disguised as plays. The title of his latest, "King Hedley II," even sounds operatic, as if it were about a royal dynasty. In a way, it is. It's about a man whose sense of himself as king of the walk is threatened by his inability to make a living. In opera, of course, it's more important to discuss the music than the plot, and that's certainly the case with "Hedley."
At a time when the fashion among playwrights is for staccato dialogue - snappy, pregnant but elusive - forcing the audience to guess at what is going on, Wilson writes arias in which his characters tell you more than you need to know. You might say that the punchy style of contemporary playwriting is an attempt to capture the pungent rhythms of hip hop, but the speech rhythms of Wilson's characters are far more leisurely - they reflect a time when talk was a form of seduction, not an assault weapon. One of the more potent styles in "Hedley" is that of the old-fashioned black preacher. "You can't play in the chord God ain't wrote," intones Stool Pigeon, a gentle, sunny man whose walls are lined with old newspapers and who devotes himself to saving stray dogs and cats. "He wrote the beginning and the end. He let you play around in the middle but he got it all written down."
This sense of inevitability informs the whole play, which is about the way the past casts clouds over the present. We learn, for example, that King Hedley (King is his name, not a title) is not the son of the man he believes is his father. But his sense of doom as that man's son is intense enough that he might just as well be. "King Hedley II" is set in 1985. But King's dilemmas derive less from the time setting than from theater convention. If you put a weapon onstage it has to be used. This play has three major weapons - two guns and a machete - driving the plot. What makes the evening mesmerizing is its bravura acting, especially by Brian Stokes Mitchell in the title role. Mitchell gives King's forlorn monologues an impassioned quality that makes you overlook the recklessness and the short fuse that constantly bring him grief. Leslie Uggams, who sings a haunting "Red Sails in the Sunset," has a rueful air as she dredges up her troubled past. By contrast, Charles Brown provides an aloof, elegant counterpoint as the dapper con artist who is her suitor. As King's embattled wife, Viola Davis conveys the pain beneath her tough stance. Stephen McKinley Henderson is irresistible as the saintly Stool Pigeon. Monte Russell has a nimble energy as King's comic henchman. Wilson has written tauter, deeper plays than this, but "Hedley" is full of powerful images - like King surrounding a pitiful little garden with barbed wire - that convey the the sad, sometimes darkly comic dialogue between hope and hopelessness in African-American life.
Blood seeps through August Wilson's plays - as ritual, sacrifice, honor and as inheritance. And blood stains the very roots of his new play "King Hedley II," which last night opened at the Virginia Theatre. Wilson is at heart a storyteller, what Africans call a griot, and he is a storyteller of genius.
He grabs you at the rise of the curtain and doesn't really let you go until he's good and ready to send you out into the street.
"Hedley II," is, of course, part of Wilson's scheme to portray the 20th-century African-American experience, decade by decade, in an epic cycle of 10 plays.
This grand concept, which has only two more plays to go after this, has often been compared with Eugene O'Neill's earlier, unfulfilled American dramatic epic series.
Yet Wilson doesn't actually have all that much in common with O'Neill, except importantly the scope and seriousness of his ambition.
The manner and texture of his writing is better compared with O'Neill's contemporary, the Irishman Sean O'Casey, who also intermingled comedy with tragedy and often used the microcosm of ethnicity and neighborhood to explore socio-political issues.
The latest addition to Wilson's national fresco is set, as always, in Pittsburgh, Pa., and here placed in 1985, the Reagan years. What is unusual is that to some extent this "Hedley II" is an actual sequel to "Seven Guitars," which was set in the post-World War II period of 1948.
In the earlier play we have already met Ruby as a flighty young woman and King Hedley, a half-crazed older man, who in a frenzy, kills a jazz guitarist with a machete and hides the body.
Ruby has a son, called King Hedley II. In "Seven Guitars," Ruby and the old Hedley had had an unlikely fling, and Ruby believed herself already pregnant at the time of their affair. You don't have to know this to fully understand, "Hedley II," but such remembrances add resonance.
By the time the new play starts, old Hedley is long dead and King Hedley II (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a small-time crook dreaming of getting a slice of that American dream, is recently out of jail after serving eight years for murder. He has a wife, Tonya (Viola Davis), and lives reluctantly with Ruby (Leslie Uggams), his mother.
There are other links with the past: an old man, a religious fanatic, now nicknamed Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Mister (Monte Russell) and Elmore (Charles Brown), a gambling man and sometime lover of Ruby, who comes visiting.
When this past and present collide, inevitably blood is spilt. Wilson plots his plays meticulously, like a good storyteller must. They unfold slowly and demand attention. But be warned - some will find its three-hour duration unfashionably long.
Since last season's off-Broadway "Jitney," Wilson has taken on a new director, Marion McClinton, who has shown himself particularly adept at bringing out Wilson's casual poetry.
McClinton encourages his ensemble cast to give Wilson's salty, ironic, often very funny dialogue with a tightly woven subtext of people fighting for honor and survival in a mythic, even poetic, context.
This mythic quality is also revealed in David Gallo's evocative setting, which looks like a bombed-out cityscape.
In a Wilson work - and this is certainly a resemblance to O'Neill - the actors have to act out the play with their lives. Here the cast rides the play on a wave of total commitment.
Mitchell, a tortured soul searching for fulfillment, is splendid, as are the more rational Uggams and Davis, both as women trying to equate with compromise. Brown, as a complex, dying gambler throwing his last dice.
Add to these four, the insouciant, bright mysticism of Henderson's amiably nutty man of conscience, and Russell's decent, baffled best friend, and you have a magnificent cast in a magnificent play . . . probably Wilson's best.
Voices go hurtling to heaven in August Wilson's ''King Hedley II,'' gut-deep cries of confusion that keep pushing toward some elusive ecstasy of understanding.
A 35-year-old grandmother angrily imagines the impact of the random killing of a child on its mother. Two men of different generations slowly summon the heat that drove each to commit murder. A former nightclub singer speaks of the day she realized her hair had turned gray and of the sexual healing she sought in response.
In the grand, ungainly three-hour drama of an underclass in the age of Reagan that opened last night at the Virginia Theater, you will hear some of the finest monologues ever written for an American stage, speeches that build gritty, often brutal details into fiery patterns of insight. And when Viola Davis and Charles Brown, in the season's most dazzling supporting performances, claim the stage for their solos, you may feel the scorch of lightning.
The words are spoken of course, but these are big, operatic arias. You would need to look to a Verdi to find a more stirringly musical fusion of public crisis and private pain.
''King Hedley II,'' directed by Marion McClinton and starring the Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Leslie Uggams, also resembles grand opera in less desirable ways. The plot that connects those magnificent arias is not always easy to understand or, when you do understand it, even credible.
Though Mr. McClinton has done an admirable job of sustaining a melodic fluidness throughout, the repetition of themes and phrases can wind up diluting their initial impact rather than strengthening it. Any drama that consistently aims as high as ''Hedley'' does, inviting comparison to everything from Aeschylus' House of Atreus to the Book of Job, is sometimes going to miss its target and thud to earth. The thuds in this New York premiere, it must be admitted, are as audible as the celestial high notes.
However flawed ''Hedley'' may be in its particulars, it has a collective ferocity and passion rarely found in new plays today. It is the latest, typically high-reaching installment in Mr. Wilson's rich cycle chronicling the black American experience in the 20th century, which includes splendid works like ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' and ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone.''
''Hedley'' seeks -- and often finds -- the heights of tragedy and mysticism in the life of the common man. Mind you, in the mid-1980's in the African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh known as the Hill, everyday life embraces assault, murder, robbery, broken families and an enduring fear of homelessness that is as much spiritual as literal. As a Jeremiah-like character called Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson) proclaims: ''The people wandering all over the place. They got lost. They don't even know the story of how they got from tit to tat.''
Tragedy and the common man is a phrase famously associated with ''Death of a Salesman,'' Arthur Miller's epochal indictment of the American dream factory. In ''Hedley,'' Mr. Wilson seems to be directly invoking Mr. Miller's masterpiece and pointing out with renewed vigor how an affluent, success-driven society maims those who fail by its standards.
Like ''Salesman,'' Mr. Wilson's new drama features a man planting seeds in the shadowed dirt of an urban backyard (represented with wonderful, haunted lyricism by David Gallo's set and Donald Holder's lighting). This is the evening's title character (Mr. Mitchell), himself a salesman of sorts. He and his best friend, Mister (Monté Russell, in a nicely understated performance), are peddling stolen refrigerators, though with only feeble hopes of making the money they need to open a video store.
It says much about the universe portrayed here that when King and Mister later rob a jewelry store, it is not presented as a tense moment of climax but as another thwarted instance of the ordinary pursuit of getting and spending. Mr. Wilson is cosmic in his concerns, always stepping back to seek the larger destiny of a people who feel they keep slipping backward. To borrow again from the apocalypse-minded Stool Pigeon, ''The people need to know the story.''
The particular story that King must learn, though leavened by Mr. Wilson's canny ear for vernacular humor, takes much concentration and several leaps of faith for the audience to unravel. It involves the righting of a lie perpetrated by his mother, Ruby (Ms. Uggams), who has told King his father is indeed the man for whom he is named, a Jamaican immigrant introduced in ''Seven Guitars,'' seen on Broadway in 1996.
It doesn't make much difference whether you know ''Seven Guitars'' or not. ''Hedley'' is generally weak on establishing personal, as opposed to universal, motives and never more so than with its title character. (In that sense it has not improved since I saw it in Pittsburgh more than a year ago.) King is said to worship this fictitious father, yet we have no strong psychological sense of that relationship, only of the symbolic weight of a muddled paternal legacy.
King is the evening's least satisfying figure, a sacrificial hero who is more a strapping archetype than a proper character, without the lovingly observed idiosyncrasies that make the others come alive. Mr. Mitchell, the charismatic star of the musicals ''Ragtime'' and ''Kiss Me, Kate,'' uses his firm baritone beautifully to modulate Hedley's speeches of longing and resentment.
But there is no escaping the didactic feeling of these speeches or the sense that Mr. Mitchell is straining to create a hulking physical presence, with his open-legged stance and wide-armed gestures. Nor does the accomplished Mr. Henderson -- part of the peerless ensemble of last season's production of Mr. Wilson's ''Jitney'' -- quite avoid the tedium of the classic Wilsonian role of mad prophet in residence.
The ever-seductive Ms. Uggams provides an earthy matter-of-factness as a 62-year-old woman who has kept her sensual fires banked through years of loneliness, and generates a contrasting heavenly airiness in a lovely scene of redemption set to the strains of a waltz.
Mr. Brown, as Ruby's straying suitor, is superb in a performance that is equal parts peacock and bantam. He and Mr. Mitchell give the requisite weight and complexity to an astonishing dialogue that examines nothing less than the existential implications of what it means to take another life.
Ms. Davis, memorably seen in ''Seven Guitars,'' is equally good here as Tonya, King's proud, pragmatic wife. In the evening's best monologue, the pregnant Tonya explains why she doesn't want to have the child. She turns the news of a boy's being killed in a drive-by shooting into a searing, moment-by-moment speculation on what the boy's mother must be going through.
The individual details are mundane: what the boy's favorite foods were, for example, and the difficulty of getting through to an undertaker whose business is thriving. But with Ms. Davis triumphantly riding the rhythms of Mr. Wilson's urgently cadenced prose, the speech assumes a glare that illuminates the entire life of one generation.
Like many of the monologues in ''Hedley,'' it shifts gradually from self-centeredness to an ever-widening, connective empathy. That's the general movement of Mr. Wilson's extraordinary cycle of plays and of ''Hedley'' in particular.
Only God, as Stool Pigeon says, may strike the chords that reverberate through the scheme of life. But Mr. Wilson renders the human notes with more than a touch of divinity.
By any standard but the playwright's own, August Wilson's "King Hedley II" would probably rank as an impressive accomplishment. There are passages in the play that positively throb with lyrical heat, gorgeous monologues in which this immensely gifted writer once again turns blunt vernacular language into pulsating poetry. There are also electrifying moments in which the play's bruised characters batter against destiny and each other with aching intensity.
But Wilson has set the bar very high in the previous installments of his 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, and the sad truth is that "King Hedley II" is a disappointing entry in this ongoing literary landmark. In collaboration with director Marion McClinton, supplanting the playwright's longtime associate Lloyd Richards, Wilson has been refining the play for more than a year, as it has traveled around the country visiting various regional theaters. But while the running time has been reduced -- cut from about three and a half to three hours -- the play remains unfocused and diffuse, too discursive even for this usually most entertainingly discursive writer.
Significantly, this is the first play in the cycle that does not feel strongly informed by the specifics of its time. The year is 1985, and the setting is the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where most of Wilson's prior plays have been set. But aside from a preponderance of guns and references to contemporary urban symbols like video stores, the world of "King Hedley" feels insular, timeless and unmoored from the real currents of the era -- a notable flaw, since one of Wilson's aims has been to depict the changing contours of black experience across the century.
Speeches about drive-by shootings and similarly time-specific issues come across as strained attempts at topicality arriving like telegrams from another world rather than organic expressions of the characters' experience. It's telling that the audience hears pop songs by Michael Jackson and the Commodores as it is taking its seats, but the music in the play is strictly retro: jazzy blues and even a waltz.
Much of the play is taken up with discussions of past history, as if Wilson was more comfortable returning to ancient grudges and familiar themes rather than moving into new territory. Certainly one of Wilson's major aims is to depict how legacies of abandonment and frustration are transmitted like a blighting genetic disorder down through generations. He is also obliquely illustrating how the disenfranchisement of African-Americans continued into the Reagan '80s. But too much of "King Hedley" seems like a recycling of ideas better explored in prior plays.
The title character, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell, is an ex-con struggling, as so many characters in Wilson plays do, to put a checkered past behind him and move toward the brighter future that haunts his dreams. He's named after a character in Wilson's prior play "Seven Guitars," and history depicted in and referred to in that work figures strongly in the new play (a real problem for those not familiar with it).
Hedley was abandoned for many years by his mother Ruby (Leslie Uggams), who has now returned to Pittsburgh following the death of Louise, the woman who raised Hedley. Also living in the same dilapidated row house with Hedley is his new wife Tonya (Viola Davis), while the shack next door is home to Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a "Seven Guitars" holdover who has now been infected by a religious mania similar to that of Hedley's namesake in the prior play. (His mantra, which provides several of the play's many pungent laughs, is "God's a bad motherf-----!")
Visitors to this blighted homestead are Hedley's associate Mister (Monte Russell), a partner in both a planned video store and casual crime, and Ruby's ex-flame Elmore (Charles Brown), who intends to finally settle down with Ruby but also -- somewhat inexplicably -- is determined to tell Hedley the secret truth about his ancestry.
Wilson's plays have always been driven by character rather than circumstance, but in the best of them a character's conflict with his circumstances provides a potent dramatic thrust. Here the connections between Hedley and his destiny never come together cogently: The tragic finale the play finally arrives at feels strenuously manufactured rather than ineluctably shaped by events in the play. Nor are the characters, for the most part, as distinctive as in the best of Wilson's plays.
Still, many individual scenes in the play catch fire, kindled by the rich contours of Wilson's beautifully shaped dialogue. Fire is just the word for Davis' performance as Tonya, the standout of the production. This vibrant actress brings an electrifying edge to her role, and Tonya's defiant speech about her decision to abort Hedley's child is perhaps the most anguished and beautifully realized moment in the play. This subplot inspires a matching peak from Mitchell's Hedley, who describes just how much bringing a child into the world means to a man who has made a mess of his own life.
But the central character (and by extension the play) becomes blurry under the burden of too many legacies, too many grudges and too many big dreams. Hedley has got three economic enterprises afoot, for starters, not to mention a somewhat heavily symbolic horticultural one.
Best known for his work in musicals, Mitchell is an undeniably charismatic performer, and his lush baritone lends its own, aptly operatic sheen to Wilson's language. But while the actor effectively uses a wide-legged stance and a wild-eyed look to denote Hedley's alternately truculent and terrified wrestling with the forces marshaled against him -- and he has a natural imperiousness that's apt for this proud character -- the performance (or is it the character?) never comes into sharp focus.
Uggams seems similarly miscast as the sassy Ruby -- she's a naturally refined and self-contained actress trying to play a woman of altogether another type. Henderson and particularly Brown are excellent in supporting roles, with Brown's smooth-operating Elmore providing much of the play's comic relief as he wheels and deals his way around this small, circular economic community.
Newcomers to Wilson's commanding authorial voice and distinctive style will find the play rewarding, both for its undeniable lyrical power and the sympathetic attention it gives to a stratum of American society virtually absent from Broadway in between Wilson's regular tenancy here. But admirers of this major American artist's writing can only hope that any future collaborations with McClinton, who also directed the acclaimed production of Wilson's "Jitney" last season, will be as rewarding as the best of Wilson's achievements in concert with Richards.