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Theatre Mon Mar 17 2014

Ghosts and Premonitions in Congo Square's King Hedley II

August Wilson's King Hedley II is a stroll down the memory lane of America's nightmare; you know, when "The Dream" — Horatio Alger's and Martin Luther King's — began the stroll down the sugar-to-shit American boulevard. For poor and working class blacks, most of whom had spent the '70s making catch-as-catch-can attempts to grasp the book-ended economic and social stability, as if those things were swirling money in one of those game show cash blowing machines. Some grabbed a little, some grabbed a lot, but then the Republican Southern Strategy, white flight/urban blight, Alan Bakke's anti-affirmative victory, and the election of Ronald Reagan roll in on a tsunami wave of hatred of "others" (no matter that the "others" ancestors built this nation-for free). Oh, and then came the crack and the Rockefeller drug laws. Yes, there were those that fought, and continue to fight, the good fight. But most gave up and gave in, turning over body and soul to the political and social ravages customized and perfected just for them.

King (Rob Connor) is scarred for life in every way imaginable. He's done prison time for killing a casual acquaintance who started off by "joking" with King (think Frank Vincent's Bobby Batts "joking around" with Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas) and a few days later delivers the punchline by slicing King's face open. Of course King responds with a hail of bullets. Black life and death (or, as Don King coined the phrase, "nigga' tragedies") not being worth much, King does seven years of time, and gets out to find the woman who raised him is dead. Neecy, his one true love, is also dead, but the woman who gave birth to him, the party girl who's gone to seed Ruby (Taron Patton), is still around. King moves in and makes do with consolation-prize wife Tonya (Tiffany Addison), a woman cursed with fighting against the ghost of the past in Neecy, and quite possibly a ghost of the future, her King.

Congo Square Theatre's King Hedley IIKing fancies himself a businessman who should work for himself. After all, it's the Age of Reagan, all "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps." It's also the renaissance of the Nation of Islam, and Minister Farrakhan has pronounced that "Africans" must do for themselves, own their own everything. Along with his closest friend Mister (Marc Rogers), King wants that — both of "that." King and Mister believe they can achieve their self-determination via micro-managed stick-ups. (Mister actually takes sick days from his legitimate day job to go a'robbin' with King.) They've already saved up six grand of other people's property — two-thirds of what they'll need to open and stock a video store. As ridiculous and fantastical for delicate middle-class appetites to comprehend thievery and mayhem (some robberies don't go so smoothly) as a ticket to Norman Rockwell's Americana, well, King and Mister are All-American boys, following a path paved from Christopher Columbus to Bernie Madoff in real life and Michael Corleone and Dike Diggler in reel life. And just like his real and "reel" contemporaries, the life lesson eludes King as well: gathering light from the darkness only applies to Mendelian biology.

King's bio-mother Ruby has nothing to do and lots of time to do it in. Her days are filled with filing away King's rejections and unsuccessfully attempting relevance by "counseling" daughter-in-law Tonya to stay in her bad marriage. She argues and belittles the neighborhood sage Stool Pigeon (Anthony Irons, whose performance has a precision ferociousness that matches his character's responsibility as one-part Greek chorus/three-parts Casandra). Stool Pigeon saves newspapers, all over his home, all over his porch, all over the yards. Stool Pigeon is saving the past, holding on as he watches his neighbors die off, less and less by disease and old age and more and more by violence by and against their own. As King and Ruby wallow in the "what was said-and-done to us," Stool Pigeon takes a John the Baptist stance, heralding their need to reconnect with and take responsibility for their communal past and their irresponsible present — or there will be no future for any of them. As King, Ruby, Tonya and Mister witness their own drain-circling, we bear witness to family branches connected to no tree, with no connection to soil or lifelines; we know they'll fall to the ground, snap and whither and pass on the rot to the next generation, and the next.

While Tonya faces the prospect of losing King to recidivism or violence, Ruby faces the abyss of sexual and maternal rejection brought on by premature aging from being young and wild, and for abandoning toddler King for the street life. In rolls Elmore, Ruby's erstwhile love-of-a-lifetime, and he's ready to settle down and settle up on past fairy tales. Elmore charms all, even the always suspicious Stool Pigeon. Unfortunately for this family, the past doesn't have to catch up, as it was there all along, waiting to pounce and claim its stake and sacrifice.

Playwright Wilson's rendering is classic American theatrical storytelling; perfect in laying bare the resentment and failures that turn to hemlock when the rug is pulled from other us, and deposits us in the grave we dug for ourselves at an earlier time.

Congo Square's repertoire does an admirable job; every role is gut-wrenching, with Irons and Addison rising to rafters in their roles as a soothsayer who doesn't need much vision to see what's coming and a good woman who deserves better.

One quibble: there needs to be a smoother ebb and flow with the dialogue. Connor and Rogers need to pace themselves — let us feel their anger as well as hear it, and let the other complete his sentences.

If you believe that you're going to ask yourself, "what the hell is going on out (there), and why...", then you need to be front row and center for Congo Square's King Hedley II; August Wilson offered no roadmap to resolving our shared desolation, but he certainly lays clear the road we all traveled to get here.

King Hedley II
Written by August Wilson, directed by Daniel Bryant
Presented by Congo Square Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., through Sunday, April 6. Tickets are $37 for adults, $22 for students and seniors over 65, and available online or at the Athenaeum box office.

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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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