Theatre review: King Hedley II

'I cannot think of a better performance on the London stage,' says John Nathan of Aaron Pierre as the eponymous King in this explosive play


The great African American dramatist August Wilson didn’t much like the idea of turning Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman into a black story as has just been done at the Young Vic. To make a play “conceived for white actors” is to deny African Americans of “our own humanity, our own history and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans”, he once said.

And in this revival, the last work in Wilson’s ten-play investigation into African American 20th century experience (one for each decade), all that humanity and history simmers, boils and then finally explodes to devastating effect.

Wilson wrote the play in 1999, though the setting is 1985. In the barren front yards of dirt-encrusted houses in downtown Pittsburgh, the eponymous King attempts to grow flower seeds. As a metaphor for the fragility of life and hope in this community, it is pretty unsubtle. But then there is nothing subtle about the violence and poverty that stalks these lives. Here they are represented by King, who is out of prison for murder and is played with vein-bulging rage by Aaron Pierre and his estranged mom Ruth (Martina Laird), a former nightclub singer. Then there is hustler/charmer Elmore — played with poise and power by Sir Lenny Henry — who could could con the change out of a parking meter and who Ruth still loves despite the pain he brings to the people around him.

This is a play whose plot is revealed between great long speeches in which Wilson’s main protagonists each recount the events in their lives that define them. But the speeches are good. There is, for example, the harrowing account of how Ruth was nearly raped by the impresario she used to sing for. She could have killed him. But they became “good friends” after that. Elmore’s story reveals a wisdom beneath his bluff and bluster, drawn from the time he murdered a man over a 50 dollar debt, while King’s act of extreme violence is linked to the scar that snakes down his face.

Yet what haunts all of these experiences is the poverty in which this community live and the countless barriers that exist to stop black people legitimately getting their hands on some of the money that white people have much easier access to. In that sense the play speaks as loudly about today’s racially divided America as it does about the America in which it is set.

Henry is in commanding form as the dapper maverick Elmore, while Laird as his still-alluring old flame is superb. But even these fine performances are eclipsed by Pierre whose King seethes with the injustice meted out to him by white America. I cannot think of a better performance on the London stage.

The other big story here is the sheer ambition of this production directed by the Theatre Royal’s newish artistic director Nadia Fall. True, the play could easily be cut. But Peter McKintosh’s design conjures a place besieged by poverty and racism, Howard Harrison’s lighting design evokes not just the passage of time but a state of mind, and the evening is as rich as it is long.


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