Why Theater Matters 

Tragedy, Art, and King Hedley II

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I SAW KING HEDLEY II on Friday, December 14—the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Before the show, Portland Playhouse Artistic Director Brian Weaver asked the audience to take a moment of silence to remember the victims of Newtown. The sold-out crowd complied, some tearfully.

It was a strange day to see a show, but the experience offered a profound reminder of what, exactly, art is for. August Wilson's infrequently produced King Hedley II is set in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, in an African American community beset by violence and poverty. The titular Hedley (Peter Macon) can't seem to catch a break—after spending a few years in prison for killing a man, Hedley once again turns to crime when he can't find work as a contractor. With his friend Mister (Vin Shambry), Hedley peddles stolen refrigerators, going door to door with a tattered GE catalog and trying to scrape together enough money to open his own video store.

Hedley's wife Tonya (Ramona Lisa Alexander) is pregnant with her second child, a child she doesn't particularly want. Violence in society is escalating, she says, and people carry guns just to protect themselves. A young boy was just killed in a random drive-by shooting—how could the boy's mother possibly ever recover from something like that? "Why," she asks Hedley, "would I bring another life into this world that doesn't respect life?" In an oversized orange sweatshirt and blue eyeshadow, actress Alexander delivered one of most powerful moments I've seen on a Portland stage, this season or ever. My experience was colored by the context, of course—the context of a school full of dead children—but Alexander's hopeless monologue interrogates the possibility that life is meaningless, that violence is random, and that nothing we do can truly protect the people we care about. Regardless of the scale of the tragedy, these are universal, human concerns.

A counterpoint to the show's nihilistic streak is provided by a neighbor named Stool Pigeon—the excellent Victor Mack—who collects newspapers so people won't forget the stories of where they came from, and draws palpable, contagious comfort from the words of the scripture. "God is a bad motherfucker," he observes admiringly, shaking his head at the heavens.

Hedley himself is caught somewhere between those poles—trying to be better than he is, but locked into a cycle of violence and poverty, endlessly raging at his own circumstances. Oregon Shakespeare Fest actor Peter Macon gives a brilliantly volatile, vulnerable performance as Hedley, a man equally stirred by the injustices of his murder trial and an altercation with a teacher in the third grade. In one of Wilson's less-inspired metaphors, Hedley has planted some flowers for his wife in the thin dirt of his backyard, though his mother insists that nothing can possibly grow in the depleted soil. He dotes on the small sprouts, flying into a rage when they're threatened and ultimately surrounding them with protective barbed wire. The flowers are intimately connected to Hedley himself, and the possibility of rising above his circumstances, his anger and his poverty, to become more than he is.

Hedley is much too long (clocking in at just over three hours), and the limitations of Portland Playhouse's venue are very apparent when the house is sold out: They've got some of the longest intermission bathroom lines in town. Moreover, the show ends with a histrionic cacophony that stands in jarring contrast to the play's more effective, introspective moments. But the parts of the show that really work serve as a reminder of why we go see plays in the first place: Theater can help to contextualize our experiences, and it allows us to grapple with giant, life-sized themes in a safe, consequence-free setting. King Hedley II didn't make me feel any less upset about the events in Connecticut, but it did put voice to many of the things I was already thinking about, and there's some comfort and value to that.

That Hedley's themes felt applicable to a very modern, very specific tragedy speaks to the fact that August Wilson is brilliant in the right hands. Of course, all those lyrical monologues mean that he's pretty damn tedious in the wrong ones, as local audiences have had ample opportunity to find out for themselves—his work has been overproduced in Portland over the last few years. Fortunately, though, Portland Playhouse's production has all the right hands: Director Jade King Carroll helms an absolutely top-notch cast, easily the finest ensemble performance of the year. Portland doesn't need any more August Wilson plays—but I'm glad it had this one.

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