King Hedley II (The Century Cycle #9), by August Wilson
King Hedley II is a poignant and tragic play, one of a series of poignant and tragic plays by the author, in which a black man ends up being both defined and doomed by his proud and brittle code of honor which forces him to avenge wrongs done to him by others. In providing us with a play which has a very dark look at life in the seemy and violent underbelly of 1980’s America, we witness the sort of tensions that make family ties a challenge and also look at the murderous secrets that hide just beneath the surface that make pleasant and tranquil family life impossible for violent men (and women) seeking for dignity and their piece of the American pie, even if it tends to involve a lot of shady behavior, as is the case here. Like many of the author’s other plays, this particular volume is centered in a Pittsburgh where ex-cons and their womenfolk ponder about the possibility of marriage and where the threat of violence and arrest is never far away for those whose desires to make it big do not include a high degree of interest in obeying the law.
The action of this play is straightforward enough, focused on a household where an ex-con, King Hedley II and his associate, Mister, seek to make money by selling stolen fridges to the local black population, while engaged in other forms of theft as well which include stealing from a jewelry store. Hedley has a troubled relationship his wife/main girl Tonya, who has an abortion and claims it to be because of her fear that Hedley wants a child but isn’t going to be alive or out of jail to help provide for the family he wants. Meanwhile, Hedley’s mother has been carrying on a long-term relationship with the shady and shiftless ex-con Elmore while Stool Pigeon brings ambiguous discussion about prophecy and God’s judgment on a fallen society. A great deal of the discussion ends up turning around the question of violence–whether we are looking at the violence of abortion against the unborn, the violence of black men to other black men because of taunts and attacks to honor, and the violence that cross generational lines as sons seek to avenge their fathers at terrible cost to themselves as well as the well-being of their families.
The end of this play is one of the most pointed tragedies that one can imagine and it forces upon the reader the understanding of the sorts of choices that are faced by people when it comes to their own happiness as opposed to the well-being of their children. While Wilson has frequently dealt with the troubled relationships between fathers and sons, here the author places the relationship between a mother and her son as as being at the heart of the play’s dark and tragic nature. Indeed, this play presents motherhood as itself the source of a great deal of tragedy, when it comes to the way that many mothers simply do not want to bring forth children, show a reluctance to accept marriage as being conducive to the well-being of both men and women, and often pit their own desire to protect and defend their own sexual interests even at the cost of subjecting their children to intense violence. All of these are the subject of real problems in the black community and far from it (some of these themes, indeed, have shaped my own existence) and all of them present the reader of this play with a deep understanding of the brokenness of community in Wilson’s plays.