Theatre Reviews
Photo by Keshon Campbell courtesy of The Black Rep

There are at least three compelling reasons to see The Black Repertory Company’s production of August’s Wilson’s “King Hedley II”: rich character development, emotional depth and social relevance. Add to that pitch-perfect casting, a set design that is so real you can almost smell it and the spot-on directing of Ron Himes.

If those reasons aren’t not enough to inspire you to see this production of “King Hedley II,” don’t forget the Black Rep is one of only a handful of companies to receive the August Wilson American Century Cycle Award for their dedication to authenticity, compelling performances and productions of Wilson’s entire 10-play cycle. That accolade is well deserved and affirms the Black Rep’s commitment to Wilson's legacy while underscoring its role in advancing diverse perspectives and enriching the theatrical landscape with stories that resonate deeply within the community.

But the play’s the thing – we go to see a performance, not an award. In this regard, the Black Rep offers an outstanding production that is thought provoking and emotionally compelling. This is a theatrical experience that delves deep into the human condition while reflecting on historical and social issues. This "King Hedley II" provides exceptional acting, direction and adherence to Wilson's vision and reaffirms the play’s place as a cornerstone of American theater.

Even before the actors enter, the set itself demands special attention with its backdoor, urban documentary, theater verité vibe. Between two rundown buildings, home to Ruby (and King Hedley and his wife, Tonya) on the left and the eccentric and prophetic Stool Pigeon on the right, is a patch of nearly bare earth. This hardscrabble, cluttered common ground is the locus of the play’s action, set in the 1980s in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a neighborhood marked by its African-American community grappling with urban decay and economic hardship. These are issues that are evident everywhere, including North St. Louis. For the characters in “King Hedley II,” 40 acres and mule is a luxury estate by comparison.

With impressive craftsmanship and meticulous details, Timothy Jones, scenic and props designer, has created an immersive environment for this production. The set elevates the narrative and seamlessly integrates with the story to create a compelling environment for the characters. The set is enhanced with crisp lighting by Travis Richardson. The light is the perfect color and ambiance to accentuate the accuracy of Jones’ set. Together, the set and lighting are A-plus in an already A production. It’s visually so accurate and real that it elicits an olfactory response – you know what the place smells like.

Even allowing for the performance hiccups during the opening preview of “King Hedley II”, it’s clear yet again that director Ron Himes possesses a profound understanding of August Wilson’s works and how to stage them like few other directors – anywhere. His deep grasp of Wilson's themes, characters and the cultural nuances embedded in each work enables him to sensitively navigate their complexities on stage. As both an actor who has played Wilson’s characters and as a director, Himes comprehends the intricate layers of Wilson's narratives. As someone whose factory setting is drama (over comedy), it’s clear that this production will resonate powerfully with audiences while honoring the integrity of Wilson's vision. All the gun-waving and knife-wielding that occurs in “King Hedley II,” sets up a devastating climax that proves Stanslavski’s maxim that “If you need a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last act."

The success of this production relies on deeply affecting performance by a tight cadre of actors that Himes has assembled. With a bench this small, there’s no room for weak actors, and this cast excels. The cast includes Ka’ramuu Kush as King Hedley II, Denise Thimes as Ruby, A.C. Smith as Stool Pigeon, Alex Jay as Tonya, Geovonday Jones as Mister and J Samuel Davis as Elmore.

As Stool Pigeon, the eccentric and prophetic neighbor, Smith delivers the play’s most nuanced and complex character that is hard to define and even harder to understand. Stool Pigeon serves as a spiritual and symbolic presence, offering cryptic wisdom and commentary serving as a bridge between the past and present – while hoarding newspapers to save history for future generations. Smith’s versatile performance is magical in bringing his opaque character to life.

Thimes, a singer and actor as well as a St. Louis treasure, was perfectly cast as Ruby, King's mother. Thimes embodies the resilient, pragmatic Ruby, who occasionally uses her singing to express emotions and memories that words alone cannot convey. Thimes adds a poignant layer to her character and the play's narrative.

Davis’s performance as Elmore– through dynamic vocality and nuanced physical gestures –  captures the streetwise charisma and underlying vulnerability of the character. Davis forcefully evokes Elmore's pandering charm and menace to portray the weight of his past and his desire for redemption, making him compelling and sympathetic.

Mister, King Hedley II's loyal friend, is a jovial, hopeful character (relatively speaking) who provides a stark contrast to the play’s more intense and troubled figures. As Mister, Geovonday Jones delivers a character that is somewhat naive yet hopeful and whose own aspirations and struggles for a better life underscore the pervasive sense of desperation and the pursuit of the elusive American Dream within their community. Geovonday shines with depth and authenticity and brings brief, much needed moments of levity to a narrative filled with the complexity of survival in a harsh socioeconomic landscape. His Mister is charming and humorous, warm and lighthearted, without compromising his anxiety and resilience.

Tonya, King Hedley II's pragmatic and strong-willed wife, grapples with the harsh realities of their lives and harbors deep concerns about bringing a child into a world fraught with violence and uncertainty. As portrayed by Alex Jay, Tonya embodies the fears and resilience of women who strive to protect their families against insurmountable odds.

Of the cast, Kush’s portrayal of King Hedley II was the weakest. Perhaps the weaknesses are the result of this being a preview and not an opening night (or beyond) performance. Kush’s dialogue was too-often indecipherable throughout. There’s a powerful and emotional speech in Act I Scene 4 in which King expresses his frustration and despair about the harsh realities of life, as well as his determination to overcome the obstacles he faces.

“I’m mad! I been mad!” King says. “I’m a man without a country! You think it's easy to carry that around? You think it’s easy to live with that? A man without a country. Sometimes I want to just grab hold of something and say, 'This is mine!' But I can't do that.” Those are hard lines to bring to life, and Kush’s delivery of this moment lacked the urgency, authenticity and emotional punch that it deserves.

This speech reflects King's inner turmoil and the sense of betrayal he feels from society, but Kush didn’t deliver in that gripping and heartbreaking moment, which encapsulates the play's themes of struggle, identity and the quest for redemption in a world that often seems unforgiving. Kush is known for his transformative acting and  his ability to blend raw emotional intensity with a powerful presence, so perhaps his preview performance was just a warm-up for subsequent performances.

I am a believer in the cathartic nature of theatrical drama. "King Hedley II" delivers that catharsis. It offers a profound exploration of the African American experience in Reagan era America. This Black Rep production embodies the play’s themes of legacy, redemption and the relentless pursuit of dignity amidst systemic oppression. The cast generally delivers Wilson's rich, authentic dialogue and complex characters with deep emotional resonance. They bring to life their characters’ struggles and resilience of a community striving for identity and purpose.

This production offers an engaging theatrical experience while underscoring Wilson's masterful storytelling and his significant contribution to American theater, as well as the Black Rep’s contribution to Wilson’s legacy and plays.

“King Hedley II” continues at Edison Theatre at Washington University through July 14. For more information, visit

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