King Hedley II graces the stage at Cygnet

Language matters

August Wilson's plays flow like a musical score, soprano highs and bass lows about the black experience in America.
  • August Wilson's plays flow like a musical score, soprano highs and bass lows about the black experience in America.

Theater critic Jeremy Gerard said August Wilson “writes plays not for Broadway, but which Broadway simply must have — even if it means getting them last.”

Those expecting prepackaged emotions and a tidy take-home message may find Wilson about as un-Broadway as they come. The ten plays in his American Century Cycle are written about, and for, an oral culture. Nobody’s famous. They talk and language matters. The action’s often in the words. Instead of moving in a straight line, the plays flow like a musical score: soprano highs and bass lows about the black experience in America.

They even talk to each other.

Seven Guitars

Seven Guitars takes place in Pittsburgh, 1948. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton’s out of jail and wants to amend his life; 59-year-old, TB-infected Hedley prophesizes the rise of the black race. Floyd exercises free will. Hedley calls on destiny. Neither succeeds. Louise sums things up: “They about to drive me crazy. Who don’t know where the other one is or went or ain’t going or is going and this one’s dead and that one’s dying and who shot who and who sung that song.”

When he realizes he won’t be the King, Hedley dreams of fathering the Messiah.

King Hedley II — the Messiah King predicted? — takes place in 1985, same backyard as in Guitars, even some descendants. At Cygnet Theatre, which runs the plays in repertory, Sean Fanning’s set keeps the two now run-down buildings, but its 37 years later. Graffiti scars the walls, bars grate the windows, plywood covers the cellar doors. Times have changed, observes Stool Pigeon (Canewell in Guitars), “They got razor wire now. That barbed wire ain’t good enough no more.”

It was around 1985 that a New York magazine published an article: “Kids With Guns.” The Jets and Sharks now have automatic weapons. “It used to be you get killed over something,” says King, who may or may not be Hedley’s son. “Now you get killed over nothing.” That’s why King’s pregnant wife Tonya contemplates an abortion. She refuses to bring “another life into this world that don’t respect life. I don’t want to raise no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive.”

King spent seven years in prison for killing a man in self-defense. Now, like Floyd in Guitars, he’s out and determined to better himself. He and his pal Mister want to open a video store — a somewhat prescient idea in 1985. But they need money. Solution: sell refrigerators door to door. They don’t have all the models — you want the ice-maker, go elsewhere — and they don’t get the fridges from a store or outlet.

Stool Pigeon — Canewell, Floyd’s sideman in Guitars — fights for the old traditions “gained by will and daring.” His reference library’s stacks of newspapers, brown with age. He may fight a losing battle, though, since black youth have “burned up their history.” Without a connection to their roots, “they ain’t gonna know what happened.”

Some critics complain that King Hedley II has a looser structure than the rest of the American Century Cycle. But it mirrors the times, as Tonya observes: “It look like everything going every which way and ain’t nobody in charge.” All Wilson’s plays have the feel of a search, or quest. In Hedley, it’s more desperate.

Cygnet Theatre deserves praise for staging Seven Guitars and King Hedley II in repertory — as does the cast, for an effort more than twice the call of duty. Guitars gives Hedley an extra dimension: the feel of Greek tragedy. Not just the sins of the father, though that’s there as well; an inexorable sense of danger looms over the row houses in the Hill District, and has begun to descend.

Compared to Guitars, also a greater sense of separation. Hedley has fewer extended conversations. Fewer group scenes. Instead spontaneous outbursts are the norm, as if King, Tonya, Stool Pigeon, and the others can’t hold back any more. Just get it said, even to deaf ears.

In Cygnet’s Hedley, the monologues rule. Director Jennifer L. Nelson treats them, rightly, as operatic arias. Each has a “this is it” quality — time to draw the line — as the speakers disgorge their souls.

At the end of Act one, Tonya (Yolanda Franklin, like vulnerable granite) explains why she wants an abortion (“That’s all there is to it!”}. Not long after, King (Laurence Brown, fierce throughout) cuts loose with a confession (“I killed Pernell”) and an affirmation (“When you see me coming, that’s who you better see”).

In these and other monologues, the speakers are so invested, so in the pain, it’s only long after, if at all, that one detects the craft behind the work. And the challenge of playing two of August Wilson’s plays in repertory.

A single character runs through most of the cycle: Aunt Ester. She has direct contact to the “spirit world” and, writes Wilson, “the characters...are her children.” She dies offstage in Hedley. She was 366 years old. It’s a tragedy within the tragedy. Maybe a “blood sacrifice” can resurrect her black cat — or even Aunt Ester. Wilson suggests that possibility.

Mumbo-jumbo you say?

Tonya would disagree: “You ain’t got to believe in it for it to be true.”

Cygnet Theatre

4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

King Hedley II, by August Wilson

Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, cast: Ro Boddie, Laurence Brown, Yolanda Franklin, Antonio TJ Johnson, Grandison Phelps III, Milena Phillips, Yvonne; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Veronica Murphy; lighting, R. Craig Wolf; sound, Melanie Chen; wigs and make-up, Peter Herman; fight choreography, George Ye

Playing through November 6; Sunday at 7 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2 p.m. [Note: Seven Guitars runs in repertory with Wilson’s King Hedley II]

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