Theater Review: Actors ‘Theater and PAST Productions’ Majestic and Devastating ‘King Hedley II’

The Actors’ Theater closes Schiller Park’s 2022 season on an incredibly high note, collaborating with PAST Productions on a stellar production of August Wilson’s late Pittsburgh play King Hedley IIdirected by Patricia Wallace-Winbush.

Set in 1985 – with all that means – the play’s eponymous king (Alan Tyson) grapples with the perspectives of a black man who has served years in prison, living with his mother Ruby (Wilma Hatton) and his wife Tonya (Logan Chase), selling refrigerators and dreaming of buying a video store with his best friend, handsome Mister (Duncan McKennie).

Their lives are turned upside down when Ruby’s old flame Elmore (Ricardo Jones) returns to town with new life and lines we’re pretty sure all the characters have heard before, and their neighbor Stool Pigeon (Chase McCants) , who speaks in prophecy and obscenity-laden Bible interpretations announce that Aunt Ester, a figure who presided over the Pittsburgh Hill District and suspended the entire cycle, has died at age 366.

One of Wilson’s darkest plays, King Hedley II spares no one and coats nothing – Wilson has calibrated his flights of poetic language to draw blood. He delves into the themes of much of his work: the human cost when people – especially black people – are denied human dignity by artificial systems like government and finance, by white people, by some others and even by themselves; as well as how the stories we tell about ourselves and the people we love shape who they and we are, especially those who are gone, but even those who are left behind. Each of these notes rings painfully true in the beautiful reading this tragedy receives from Wallace-Winbush and his cast.

Tyson’s king only slips into the cliche to sidestep those expectations on his next breath. Juggling one metaphor after another – including repeatedly returning to the flowers he grows for Tonya in what Ruby reminds him isn’t the ‘good soil’ he needs and wrestling with the right to birthright of a father so long gone that he had to put it back together. The physicality of her performance shocks audiences with her stillness, making her outbursts of enthusiasm, good and bad, all the more unsettling.

The good-natured, shrewd gentleman is a calming presence even when the character is out of his depth. McKennie’s subtle performance shows how easily he goes from foil status to King, Ruby and Elmore, and one of the hardest things to play, a person with an emptiness inside.

Jones plays Elmore with the perfect mix of charm and menace, physically imposing yet agile, and with just enough hints of the cracks Elmore has earned over a lifetime of boundless joy and gruesome regret. He alludes to having to “get right with God” after making his other peace, but slips into old patterns that too many of us easily recognize. Click on. Jones delivers Elmore’s searing monologue with the intensity that made me feel like I was watching an all-too-human hurricane, but he’s also impressive in the opening moments, holding the promise of a character that’s talked about for half a year. -hour before seeing him.

McCants’ delightful Stool Pigeon serves as narrator and comic relief. But he is also a symbol of the cruelty of people – and of God – when he is beaten and his beloved newspapers are burned by children for no clear reason; and the grace of the community because Ruby gave it that name, for good reason, and she and the neighborhood still give it a measure of grace.

The two women at the heart of King Hedley II carry much of the play’s weight, two of August Wilson’s most compelling characters, and a painful reminder of what happens when, as a synopsis said, “Black women feel left out” and caught in a nasty crossfire. Hatton’s Ruby is one of those performances you get to see a handful of times in your life. The character’s wit, grace, sensuality, pain, and irrepressibility are all showcased here; she plays the character’s past, the wrong hands dealt and the choices made, with heartbreaking physicality, weighed down while standing tall and fending off the rocks thrown by everyday life, always living in the moment.

And Chase’s Tonya, battling forces similar to King’s, similar shadows from the past, and others of her own, while maintaining a job and supporting their families, is another powerful performance. Her speech full of rage on motherhood and the choice of whether or not to bring a child into the world, which is a centerpiece of the first act, knocked me over in my chair. And his portrayal of the character did that to me over and over again.

At three o’clock with an intermission, King Hedley II can feel punished. And unlike the clean construction of Wilson classics like Fences Where The piano lesson, all the digressions do not land here. But the care with which Wallace-Winbush and his cast treat the setting, the characters and the words, makes for an indelible evening and a reminder of the empathy needed at the heart of any great tragedy.

King Hedley II through September 4, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Free, donations accepted. For more information, including reserved seating based on donations, visit

Ricardo Jones and Alan Tyson at the 2022 Actors’ Theater of Columbus and PAST Productions Columbus presentation of August Wilson’s King Hedley II – Photo by Jabari Johnson

Marjorie N. McClure