August Wilson's King Hedley II shows the ravages of the 1980s | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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August Wilson's King Hedley II shows the ravages of the 1980s

Ron OJ Parson's production for Court Theatre hits with torrential force.

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In his epic masterpiece King Hedley II, the penultimate play in his Century Cycle, August Wilson captures man, society, and God in a bottle, and director Ron OJ Parson uncorks its glory and unleashes its fury on the Court Theatre audience like a torrential downpour.

As the play opens with thunder and an ominous, prophetic Shakespeare-esque prologue, we meet Dexter Zollicoffer's Stool Pigeon, the friendly neighborhood hoarder who in a different era might be called "touched"—a euphemism for one who can commune with a higher plane, and who also presents symptoms of mental illness. Zollicoffer inhabits the role with hilarious gusto and sobering dread, reminding us frequently that "God is a bad muthafucka."

It's 1985, and Reagan's "trickle-down" economics have left the soil dry and parched. There are few jobs, which makes other methods of earning seductively compelling—if not essential to survival. In a society that yokes the output of an individual to self-worth, what is the measure of a man without work? Must securing his humanity require blood sacrifice?

Kelvin Roston Jr. is outstanding as Hedley, a man of modest lineage who stands fast in the eye of a great and terrible storm. His brow bears the substantial weight of Wilson's storytelling, a too-young man reckoning with racism, family legacy, betrayal, and the vengeance of an Old Testament-wrathful God who does not suffer fools gladly. When Hedley asks, "Do I have a halo over my head?" it's a desperate plea for salvation from the merciless hand of fate before the scythe cuts him down.

Director Parson deftly navigates the relentless waves of grief that buffet Hedley's kingdom by offering frequent comedic beats, leaving the audience unmoored and vulnerable for the next sucker punch. One of the standout emotional moments is a showstopper monologue delivered by Kierra Bunch, who plays Hedley's girlfriend Tonya, where she reckons with the nature of foresight, love, mercy, and a subject that still remains taboo.

Both female characters are rich and layered, and Ruby (TayLar), Hedley's mother, is no exception. A shrewd, uncompromising woman, Ruby knows that regret is just as much a part of life as joy. She and her beau, Elmore, played by the indomitable A.C. Smith, have great chemistry, and as TayLar and Smith tease out subtleties in the complex tale of their relationship, they treat us to a Rashomon-like retelling of history as a parable and maybe even a glimpse of destiny.

Rounding out the cast is Hedley's best friend, Mister, played by Ronald L. Conner. He brings levity and an impish charm to scenes of sobering shenanigans that remind us that these men are still children, grasping for the trappings of adulthood like blind seedlings pushing up instinctively through the soil.  v

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