If you missed the opportunity to see August Wilson’s Seven Guitars staged at his childhood home in 2016, rest easy. King Hedley II, another entry in Wilson’s iconic Pittsburgh Cycle, returns to 1727 Bedford Ave. this week.
Hedley is the penultimate act in the Pittsburgh Cycle, a ten-part series chronicling the lives of African Americans living in Pittsburgh in each decade of the 20th century. Hedley is set in the 1980s in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. At the center of the story is King, a man in his mid-thirties, returning home to his old neighborhood after a stint in prison. King’s father (Hedley I) and his mother Ruby were first featured in Seven Guitars, but it’s not an outright sequel. Like all the chapters in the Pittsburgh Cycle, the struggles of each family and each decade are unique but painfully universal and consistent.
While not as famous as other Wilson works like Jitney or Fences, Hedley II is a unique part of Wilson’s legacy. The themes are notably darker overall, which might be chalked up to the close proximity between the time it was written and when it takes place. The early 1900s entries in the Pittsburgh Cycle have the padding of nostalgia and fable; the mid-century works like Fences and Guitars convey the ache of Wilson’s childhood; but Hedley II takes place only a decade or so before it was staged. There’s something about the scars in this one that feel particularly raw.
Co-directed by Mark Clayton Southers (who directed Seven Guitars at the August Wilson House in 2016), Monteze Freeland and Dennis Robinson Jr. and presented by Pittsburgh Playwrights, King Hedley II will kick off on Wilson’s 73rd birthday on April 27 and run through June 3. City Paper spoke with Southers eight days before the premiere to learn about the challenges of on-site staging, overcoming anachronisms and what makes King Hedley II unique.
You staged Seven Guitars at this location before. Why choose King Hedley II to follow it up here on August Wilson’s birthday?
Well, initially we were gonna do Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, but the rights weren’t available. So we had to change it, choose something else to take advantage of the setting back there. King Hedley II takes place at the same setting [as Seven Guitars but] 40 years later. It takes place in the 1980s whereas Seven Guitars takes place in the ‘40s.
Since there are 40 years separating the two, what changes did you make to the performance space to show that progression of time?
Costumes and the music, for one. But it’s pretty much the same. Just have to make it look more ‘70s/’80s. It’s the same house. It’s Pittsburgh, a lot of the houses were built in the 1900s. We’ll probably paint the wood trim on the windows, change the curtains. Won’t be no chickens running around. But pretty much just the costumes and music. Of course August took care of the dialogue.
Tell me about the cast you’re working with.
I think we got some really epic actors in this one. We got Sala Udin; this will be his third production with us. He was one of August’s childhood friends. And Etta Cox, one of Pittsburgh’s iconic jazz singers, playing a role that’s really fitting for her, as Ruby, who was a former jazz singer. I think it will be a great opportunity for Pittsburghers to see two iconic actors sharing the stage, along with Wali Jamal, who will be completing his cycle with this play.
You’re co-directing this one with Monteze Freeland and Dennis Robinson Jr. What was behind that decision?
Right! Monteze was supposed to direct this play initially. But he got cast in Hamlet at the Public [Theater]. I was supposed to direct In The Heat of the Night. About a week before we started rehearsals, I had an infection in my knee, I got really sick … I was in bad shape. I talked to Monteze and he was able to take over the first week of the rehearsal while I was at the hospital. So I brought him on board, and then [actor] Sala Udin had his knee replaced and I thought it’d be a lot easier for Dennis to go work with Sala at his home, one-on-one, so I just decided to do something that hasn’t been done before and make us all directors. At different phases of the play we’ve all been directors. I blocked the first act, Monteze blocked the second act except for the final scene, and Dennis blocked the final scene. So we’ve all been working with it.
In the Pittsburgh Cycle, what makes King Hedley II unique?
There’s some really great monologues. This is the play where Viola Davis won her first Tony Award, playing Tonya on Broadway. It has some great arias. People always say, “what’s your favorite August Wilson play?” Well, this one ranks at the top for me. However, whatever August Wilson play you’re working on usually is your favorite.
[King Hedley II] is a rough piece. It’s a very dangerous play. It’s nothing you walk away from feeling proud of, as far as what’s in the play. It’s just one of those pieces that had to be written.