King Hedley II, the eighth in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle of the African-American experience in the 20th century, ends in resurrection. From its grave, a dead cat yowls—a sudden, violent return to life. We can hardly expect a similar recovery for Wilson, who died one and a half years ago, but the Signature Theater’s revival of King Hedley II shows that his plays, at least, are enjoying a spirited posthumous existence.
Last seen in New York in 2001 on Broadway, King Hedley II reuses some characters from Wilson’s 1940s play Seven Guitars (which also played at the Signature this season) and introduces new ones. King (Russell Hornsby), purportedly the son of Ruby and the tubercular King Hedley I, is an ex-con trying to scrape by—honestly or otherwise. On David Gallo’s lavishly ugly set, King shares a crumbling row house with his wife, Tonya and his mother, Ruby. Though his neighborhood and life have fallen into sore disrepair, he’s still trying to coax beauty from it, using a flick knife to plant flower seeds in his trash- and gravel-strewn backyard. He explains to his mother, “This is the only dirt I got.”
From the decrepitude of the 1980s cityscape and the oddments of earlier histories, Wilson similarly entices a kind of poetry. As the play progresses, conversation gives over to impassioned, savage monologues, making rough verse of vernacular speech. Derrick Sanders directs an excellent cast, especially Lynda Gravatt as a full-bodied Ruby and Russell Hornsby as a mighty, wounded King. As King, Hornsby laments his circumstance, claiming, “I used to be worth twelve hundred dollars during slavery. Now I’m worth $3.35 an hour. I’m going backwards. Everybody else moving forward.” King’s lot may not improve—it’s the rare Wilson play that ends happily—but King Hedley II‘s and Wilson’s worth are great, extending well beyond the grave.