One of the things I love about experiencing any August Wilson play is the way everything the characters say and do seems to spring spontaneously from their lives.
Even with good playwrights, one sometimes senses the author arranging things, putting smart lines in characters’ mouths, for lives that apparently last only the duration of the play.
Cut to the Ensemble Theatre’s powerful Houston premiere of “King Hedley II,” the 1980s chapter of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle. Every one of the six characters is fully rounded, richly detailed and beautifully realized. Their words and actions flow naturally and inevitably as part of ongoing lives the playwright feels and understands deeply. Their earthy humor, vital passions, fierce conflicts and wary truces made in order to survive evince a toughness and skepticism born of hard-won wisdom.
Wilson was never about making things up for anybody’s entertainment, but about letting his characters speak their truths.
That’s just one of the factors confirming Wilson’s stature as one of our greatest playwrights. “King Hedley II” is stamped all over with his trademark strengths. Under Eileen Morris’ masterful direction, so sensitive to the shifting moods, the Ensemble’s terrific cast makes the most of the play’s uproarious laughter, wrenching sadness, ferocious anger and tentative hope.
Amid the violence, unemployment and urban blight of Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1985, King returns after seven years in prison for killing the man who cut his face with a razor. He struggles to reconnect with his mother, Ruby, and his wife, Tonya. Desperate to raise the cash to buy a video store with his buddy Mister, he joins in an ill-advised venture selling stolen refrigerators — and is even considering Mister’s idea of robbing a jewelry store.
Tonya is carrying King’s child and, contrary to his wishes, considering an abortion rather than bringing another child into their dead-end world. What for?, she argues in one of the most unforgettable speeches. To become another drive-by shooting victim?
Meanwhile, former nightclub singer Ruby fends off the advances of smooth-talking gambler Elmore, who’s wandered back into her life after years away and threatens to reveal a disturbing secret about King’s parentage.
Through it all, mad prophet Stool Pigeon laments the passing of 366-year-old spiritual leader Aunt Ester and spouts apocalyptic prophecies peppered with a few choice profanities.
“King Hedley II” is not Wilson’s most tightly-knit narrative. (That would be “Fences” or “Piano Lesson.”) As King notes, he was deemed “unruly” by his third grade teacher and the description stuck. His namesake play is unruly, too — and that’s part of its bone-deep authenticity. Every element contributes to the play’s rich texture.
Benjamin Cain exudes force and conviction as the proud, impulsive King — endlessly struggling, often frustrated and enraged, sometimes foolhardy.
Wilbert Williams is smooth as silk as the dapper, worldly Elmore, a shrewd operator with a knack for besting others in any deal.
Bebe Wilson imbues her subtly spectacular Ruby with wry wit, smoky sensuality, rueful wisdom and down-home sophistication.
Wayne DeHart makes Stool Pigeon as genuine as an Old Testament prophet, yet as hilariously outspoken as the edgiest stand-up comic.
Rachel Hemphill Dickson radiates concern and weariness as Tonya, ever-loving but fed up with the bad choices of the men around her.
Broderick Jones could not be funnier or more energetic as Mister, the irrepressible rascal with the eternally backfiring schemes.
James V. Thomas’ setting for the backyard of rundown row houses is down-to-the-last-detail perfect. Likewise Macy Perrone’s lived-in costumes, Eric Marsh’s moody lighting and Adrian Washington’s ominous sound design.
August Wilson plays in general — and the Ensemble’s production of “King Hedley II” in particular — that’s exactly why we go to the theater.
‘King Hedley II’
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 3
The Ensemble Theatre