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Sensational performances and superb direction make King Hedley II at Karamu must-see theater.

Cornell Calhoun, Joyce Meadows, E.B. Smith, and Regan Player in King Hedley II at Karamu.
  • Cornell Calhoun, Joyce Meadows, E.B. Smith, and Regan Player in King Hedley II at Karamu.

Now and then a play comes our way that assembles such a dazzling collection of performances that the experience almost seems supernatural. For anyone who loves theater or who simply seeks an evening of entertainment and insight, these are moments to treasure.

The pot of gold this time, now playing at Karamu, is August Wilson's King Hedley II, which features a six-person cast that is quirky and distinctive individually while meshing impeccably as an ensemble. Even though the script itself has some shortcomings, including a predictable and off-kilter conclusion, this three-hour production never falters for a minute.

The play is part of Wilson's theatrical decahedron, an assemblage of 10 scripts dealing with African American life in each decade of the 20th century. This work takes place in 1985 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, with characters from another Wilson play (Seven Guitars, set in the 1940s), who have grown older, but not necessarily wiser.

Most of the activity revolves around King Hedley II, the 35-ish son of his namesake (apparently) and ex-band singer Ruby. King is now a quick-to-anger ex-con looking to score some fast money so he can open a video store with his buddy Mister. To that end, the two friends are trying to sell hot refrigerators for 200 bucks a pop while also contemplating a jewelry store heist.

King lives in a house with his mother and his wife, Tonya, who just found out she's pregnant and is considering an abortion. She and King already have a 17-year-old pregnant daughter (whom we never see), and Tonya isn't ready to do the motherhood thing all over again. Complicating matters further is Elmore, the slick gambler, con man, and former flame of Ruby, who shows up on the Hedleys' doorstep with truths to reveal.

Writing with one eye on Shakespeare and the other on spiritual transcendence, Wilson attempts a daunting juggling act. He even has a one-man Greek chorus, in the person of elderly Stool Pigeon, who is fond of quoting bible verses and then summarizing the lesson with admirable if profane brevity: "God is one bad mother-fucker!"

Director Caroline Jackson Smith brilliantly matches each actor's performance abilities with their roles, forging such riveting characters that even Wilson's extended diatribes and occasionally wandering dialogue scenes feel tight and even compacted. Moreover, each scene is precisely paced to the emotional flow of the story, making every moment feel real, urgent, and compelling.

In the pivotal role of King Hedley, E.B. Smith is constantly stuffing his anger and frustration deep inside, so that when he explodes, the effect is startling. Although it would be nice if we learned more about King -- and if Smith plumbed his character's tender side a bit more -- we get enough information about King's hopes and dreams to root for him.

Wingman Mister provides much comic relief, thanks to a loose (he jumps some cues) but totally appealing performance by Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El. Whether he's being conned into buying a cheap derringer pistol by Elmore or explaining to King why he's not haunted by unpleasant memories ("I can't remember most things 'cause I'm not tryin' to forget them"), kicked-back Nickerson-El is the ideal foil for Smith's smoldering volcano.

Finding an actress to play Ruby who can sing "Red Sails in the Sunset" well enough to make a believable pro is a challenge, but Joyce Meadows handles the vocalizing with style, just like she handles her attraction to Elmore and her concern for daughter-in-law Tonya. And as Elmore, Cornell H. Calhoun III is every inch the conniving urban hustler, from his sinuous stride to the rolling cadences of his basso voice. When he finally reveals a murderous confrontation that happened years before, it's so mesmerizing, you may forget to blink.

But in a play chock-full of soliloquies, Regan Player as Tonya delivers perhaps the best -- a wrenching monologue about having a baby when she herself was just a child and her profound sadness that her daughter has followed the same unfortunate path. Easily the most eccentric performance is turned in by Jaribu Sasa as Stool Pigeon, who spouts bible verses seemingly at random, but then comes up with the most telling line of all: "The story's been written; all that's left is the playing out."

The entire production is transported to a higher level by a gorgeously detailed set designed by Richard H. Morris Jr., who also designed the sound and lights. This scruffy patch of dirt behind a couple of anonymous inner-city houses is imbued with hope, in the form of seeds that King is trying to cultivate into thriving plants.

But even without the almost unnecessarily graphic ending and an awkward song reprise, anyone can see that those tender stems -- like the lives that surround them -- will be no match for the storms to come.

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