King Hedley II in August Wilson’s Backyard: A Theatrical Masterpiece


Pictured: Cast of King Hedley II – Stool Pigeon (Sala Udin, left); Mister (Sam Lothard, left-center); Elmore (Wali Jamal, right-center); King (Leslie Ezra Smith, right)

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

Threatening clouds loom overhead, but that doesn’t stop the crowd from surging into the cramped “theater” – dozens of plastic chairs coming together to form a semicircle around a modest patch of dirt, the stage. But what the venue lacks in glamor it makes up for in history, as it is the former home of the late world-famous playwright August Wilson. The show? One of his greats (although I suppose they could all be characterized as such): King Hedley II.

In all honesty, I’ve never been one for plays, and I certainly don’t consider myself gifted when it comes to the performing arts. So when I glanced down at the program booklet in my hand and saw that the runtime was over three hours, I found myself feeling less than enthused.

Five minutes in, and I was glued to my seat, any semblance of boredom thrown out of the window as I awaited, transfixed, what might happen next.

King Hedley II (directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Monteze Freeland, and Dennis Robinson Jr., centers around a small house in the Hill District during the 1980s and the lives of its inhabitants: King, of course (played by Leslie Ezra Smith), a relatively young African-American man recently released from prison after killing one of his neighbors in retribution for a knifing that left a wide scar on his face; his wife, Tonya (Dominique Briggs), who constantly struggles with King over whether or not it is responsible to bring a child into a world of violence; his estranged mother, Ruby (Etta Cox), who wants desperately to make amends with her son while protecting a dark and complicated truth; his best friend, Mister (Sam Lothard), who provides both a second fiddle to King as well as some much-needed comedic relief; the wily but wise Elmore (Wali Jamal), who hopes to rekindle his relationship with Ruby and is determined to spill her secret; and Stool Pigeon (Sala Udin), a narrator of sorts, who helps tie the events of the drama to their real-life context.

Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that, although I did not know August Wilson, I am confident that he would have been proud of the night’s rendition. Each cast member managed to convey an entirely unique personality, each of which fit perfectly into the intricate jigsaw puzzle that was the storyline. Meanwhile, the outdoor setting added an even deeper sense of immersion. Overall, the humble appearance of the production proved misleading, as the result was truly Broadway-worthy.

Though King Hedley II ended last week, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre consistently features works by Wilson, put on in his own backyard. I implore you to check one out.