Review - Lenny Henry in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East
Twenty years after the premiere of August Wilson’s play in the USA, it is unsettling to observe how much of its thematic contents still hold true. Particularly with the rise of street violence here in the UK over the past year, this production directed by Nadia Fall remains an important lesson in the futility of violence and the responsibility of the state to abate it.
King Hedley has returned to his home in Pittsburgh after serving seven years in jail for the murder of another man. The woman who raised King has died, and he now lives with his wife Tonya and his estranged birth mother Ruby. Trying to rebuild his life, King determines to buy a video store with his friend Mister, scraping together the $10,000 by selling refrigerators – and the occasional heist.
The play is set after the Civil Rights Act, and yet systemic racism and police corruption persist. King, played by Aaron Pierre, is unable to get a respectable job and reintegrate himself into the community, and what’s more he is expecting a revenge attack by his victim’s cousin. Pierre’s performance is full of youthful energy, and he skillfully conveys the explosive frustration of a disillusioned black man in 80s America.
Cherrelle Skeete brings a quiet strength to the role of Tonya. Upon finding out she is pregnant with King’s child, she delivers a heartbreaking monologue in which she refuses to bring a son into an unforgiving, brutal world where he will be raised to be killed.
With the return of Ruby’s one-time fiancé Elmore into their lives, King is pushed further down a road of anger and futile pride. The stories of these two generations run side-by-side; Ruby and Elmore reflecting on the regrets from their youth, and King and Tonya on the verge of abandoning their own dreams.
Martina Laird as Ruby offers one of the production’s stand-out performances. Her sassy, sultry exterior thinly veils an aching nostalgia as she reflects on her youth as a singer. Lenny Henry as Elmore gives a strong performance; charming and cunning, ensuring that we like Elmore without ever trusting him. However, with such heightened emotion demonstrated elsewhere in the play, the romantic chemistry between Ruby and Elmore seems less thoroughly explored.
Peter McKintosh's set is a row of realistic run-down back yards, and the ambient sounds of birdsong and distant sirens help to transport us to this community of outcasts. The dialogue is dense, saturated with biblical symbolism and metaphor that are sometimes overplayed. Welcome are the moments when Mister, played by Dexter Flanders offers some comic relief (thank you, Lenny) from a very heavy, often bleak outlook. The main action of the plot is recounted retrospectively by the characters rather than shown, and it is not until the final scene that we feel any real tension. But the difficult subject is handled thoughtfully by an able cast, and this powerful play offers a clear and important message.
King Hedley II tickets are available now.