There are no winners in the world of King Hedley II, only survivors.
Black men are gunned down in the streets over perceived slights and father figures emerge from the ones left standing. Black women struggle to raise their children, their wisdom sewn from the traumatic violence of their neighborhood. The social fabric is constantly stressed. This vision of a brutal, impoverished 1980s Pittsburgh, brought to life in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by legendary playwright August Wilson, lands in the capable hands of Theatreworks and director Marisa Hébert at the Ent Center for the Arts.
King, played with brusque confidence by Michael Sapp, is a walking paradox. He plants seeds in his yard’s terrible soil that he guards over the course of the story. With the same passion he cherishes these sprouts, he effortlessly rattles off the graphic process of thoughts and events that landed him in jail for murder.
Wearing a deep cut across his face, King has a vision for a bright, new life after prison, even if the routes to get there seem tenuous at best. He and his friend Mister (Shabazz Green) want to set up a legitimate business — a video store — with some street-level capitalism. Selling refrigerators off the back of a truck from who-knows-where and a risky robbery along the way are a small price to pay for legitimacy. King’s wife Tonya (Alex Campbell), a once-teenage mom, reveals she’s pregnant with a child she doesn’t want. When the fatherly hustler Elmore (Abner Genece) — a former beau of King’s wizened mother Ruby (Adrienne Martin-Fullwood) — arrives in town, the community’s past, present and future entwine in a tragic way.
Director Hébert worked with stage designer Frank Oliva to create a beautiful set that unified the homes of the neighborhood with a dirty, unkempt yard. The houses themselves are multi-story bare-frame constructions in which we see people living while business is being conducted in the street. The background, consisting of tiers of layered fabric, is designed to evoke the heavy gray clouds from photographs of Pittsburgh “without being too literal,” says Oliva.
Even as the set design makes the neighborhood feel bigger than it is, the play reminds us of the glass dome above it all. Between acts, Ronald Reagan fuzzes in over the radio to talk about an America far beyond them. The neighborly Stool Pigeon (Dwayne Carrington) chimes in from time to time with Bible verses proclaiming the threat and fury of God. He has little sympathy for those who do him wrong, like the desperate kids who rob him for $63 or the inconsiderate neighbors who keep stealing his lawn furniture.
King Hedley II is dramatic and brutal with a fringe of humor, highlighting a slice of Pittsburgh so distanced from progress that it may never escape its own self-destructive patterns.
The Ent Center for the Arts, 5225 N. Nevada Ave., April 27 through May 21, visit tickets.entcenterforthearts.org
Editor's note: This story has been corrected. A reference to Philadelphia has been changed to Pittsburgh.