Theatre Royal Stratford East, London – until 15 June 2019
August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle – a series of 10 plays exploring the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century – has some superb plays within it, not least the incendiary Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences. As the ninth instalment in the sequence, King Hedley II doesn’t quite live up to those forebears but Nadia Fall gives it an impressive production here.
Casting director Lisa Makin was clearly on fire for this project as she gathered established names (Lenny Henry, Martina Laird) and younger talents (Cherelle Skeete – so good in Fun Home, Aaron Pierre) to give a ferocious account of this challenging play. Challenging not only in length at well over three hours but also thematically, as it sprawls over too many subjects to ever hope of doing them all justice.
Set in 1985, it is a fierce indictment of Reagan-era policies, the trickle-down economics that seemed to run dry before they reached many African-American communities. Into one of these in Pittsburgh, King Hedley II (Pierre) emerges after seven years in prison and finds any meaningful kind of opportunity to pursue the promised American Dream completely lacking.
The idea of doing the right thing being so damn difficult is powerfully played by Pierre, especially when connecting with his family members, Skeete as his wife Tonya, an achingly good Laird as his mother Ruby. But it is Ruby’s lover Elmore (Henry) who complicates things (for us as much as King), bringing in a tangle of subplots and stories, far too many of which end up unresolved.
Wilson reaches high for mythological significance in a number of ways but it is hard not to feel that a severe edit is necessary here to find the necessary narrative tautness to justify the tragic heights to which it aspires. A compelling production of a flawed play then.