BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
At the end of King Hedley II, when cast members take their bows, they look shattered, as if they have just gone through a war.
In a way, they have.
In August Wilson's saga, three of the four male characters are packing guns, and the fourth, a street-corner prophet called Stool Pigeon, gets mugged. It's 1985 in Pittsburgh's Hill District, and as Stool Pigeon proclaims, there is a "storm raging through the land.''
King Hedley II is part of Wilson's cycle of 10 plays chronicling African-American life in the 20th century, one play for each decade. It is the second to be produced by American Stage, following last season's Gem of the Ocean. A significant aspect of this play — the Shakespearean title is apt — is that it includes the unseen death of Aunt Ester, the 366-year-old earth mother of the Hill District, the community's last human connection to slavery.
King Hedley II may be Wilson's bleakest play, and American Stage steps up to the challenge with a stunning production under the direction of Bob Devin Jones, who also directed Gem of the Ocean. The theater has assembled a strong cast, including two standouts steeped in the street poetry of Wilson: Kim Sullivan, playing Stool Pigeon, and Alan Bomar Jones, as a hustler named Elmore.
The hulking set by Frank Chavez exerts a powerful presence with its matched pair of bedraggled brick buildings. The punchy music (mainly rap) between scenes captures the desperate mood of the time, when Ronald Reagan was president and black neighborhoods were swamped by economic misery.
Postell Pringle is King, an Othello or Macbeth for the ghetto, who dreams of having a halo around his head. But the hard reality is that he sports a long scar down the left side of his face, where he was slashed by a rival with a razor. King killed the man and served seven years in prison. Now he and a pal, Mister (Bechir Sylvain), have a scam to peddle refrigerators and a plot to rob a jewelry store.
Pringle is an intense, muscular figure in track pants and T-shirt. His King is a bristling ball of anger and resentment even as he tends to his flower garden, ringed by barbed wire in the dusty earth. Sylvain's portrayal is more laid-back — Mister is the one guy who has a job — and he softens his friend's rough edges.
The women in King's life are formidable. His mother is Ruby, an aging band singer (perfectly cast with Sharon Scott, a singer herself) who is trying to hold on until she can get into a senior citizens high-rise. King's wife, Tonya, is played by Brandii, a beauty whose speech about being "through with babies'' declares her independence from a culture where most fathers land in jail.
Elmore is a gambler who is dying and comes back to the Hill to reunite with his ex-girlfriend, Ruby. In Jones' masterful performance, he is reminiscent of somebody like guitar slinger Bo Diddley, with his slick wardrobe (topped by a snow-white Stetson) and menacing style. Elmore is the neighborhood expert on honor, as he expounds to King in a speech on a teen drive-by shooting.
"See . . . a man has got to have honor,'' Elmore says. "You can't be no man stealing somebody's life from the back seat of a Toyota. That's why the black man's gonna catch hell for the next hundred years. These kids gonna grow up and get old and ain't a man among them.''
Sullivan's Stool Pigeon is John the Baptist to King's Christ figure, an evangelical voice in the wilderness. There is a passionate sense of resurrection when he gives all glory to God after the shocking, tragic finale.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.