Reckoning with Harsh Realities, in August Wilson’s ‘King Hedley II’ at A Noise Within

Published on Mar 25, 2024

Amid the sprawling theatrical tapestry of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, “King Hedley II” stands out as one of the playwright’s most challenging works. Now, in a new production at A Noise Within, director Gregg T. Daniel is guiding audiences through the harsh realities faced by Black men in 1980s Pittsburgh.

The play centers on the title character, an ambitious and proud man reentering society after seven years in prison. As King, played by Aaron Jennings, attempts to rebuild his life, he confronts the systemic barriers and cycles of violence that have ensnared so many in his community.

“This is a very dark one,” said Daniel, who has overseen several previous Wilson productions at A Noise Within. “It really pictures an inner-city African American community on the brink of annihilation due to the politics, economics, and racial segregation of the time.”

Yet the director sees glimmers of hope and redemption even in the play’s bleakest moments.

“By the end, there’s a sense of something renewed, of the spirit of the community,” he said. “While it may be a dark play, there is a sense of resurrection, of renewal.”

That balance — between the harsh realities faced by King and his neighbors, and the perseverance of the human spirit — lies at the heart of Wilson’s expansive theatrical cycle. Over the course of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist chronicled the African American experience with an unparalleled poetic voice.

“He’s one of the greatest writers of the 21st century, without a doubt,” Daniel said. “How audacious of an American playwright to write a 10-play cycle about people in every decade of the 20th century?”

King Hedley II Director Gregg T. Daniel

A Noise Within’s production marks the fourth installment in the company’s ongoing commitment to staging the full American Century Cycle. Recent acclaimed productions of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” “Seven Guitars” and “Radio Golf” have solidified the theater’s reputation as a premier home for this seminal body of work.

In tackling “King Hedley II,” Daniel has worked closely with the theater’s dramaturg to meticulously research the historical context. That deep dive into the economic and social conditions of 1980s Pittsburgh, he said, helps audiences draw parallels to the ongoing struggles for racial justice and economic opportunity that continue to this day.

“These conditions are still existing,” Daniel observed. “This condition still has a profound impact on people’s lives in 2024.”

Underlying the production’s exploration of these weighty themes is Wilson’s trademark poetic language — a quality that Daniel says requires exceptional skill and sensitivity from his cast.

“His plays are like an orchestral score,” the director explained, “and you want to make sure the actors have the acuity and facility to bring that language to life.”

As theatergoers follow King’s journey, they may well find echoes of their own families’ struggles and a renewed appreciation for the dignity and resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of the gravest adversity.

“We all would like to think we have that kind of life in America,” Daniel said, “and these people are trying to. So I hope they fall in love with these characters for the struggle they’re facing, but how they’re working to overcome the struggle.”

“King Hedley II” runs through April 28th. Tickets are available online at A Noise Within:

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