The final work of August Wilson’s ten-play investigation into African American experience (one for each decade) is an angry cry for social justice. In between outbursts of purest rage, Wilson’s deeply flawed ex-convict hero – the eponymous King – rails about how the colour of his skin is a barrier to even the most basic access to money. Shops don’t even recognize his receipt as proof of purchase. How is a black man to live?
Wilson wrote the play in 1999, and the setting is mid-80s Pittsburgh. Yet still, this revival directed by Nadia Fall – the Theatre Royal’s still-newish artistic director – resonates strongly with America today. Police are spoken of as if the force were as life-threatening as poverty and disease. And when King plants flower seeds in front of the dirt-encrusted wooden houses in which he and his neighbours live, it is possible to imagine today’s Black Lives Matter movement growing from them – as well as a few tenacious plants, Wilson’s not-so-subtle symbol about the fragility of hope in this district.
The production landed at the same time as the Young Vic’s African Americanised version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, starring Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman. And it is hard not to make comparisons. Both shows attempt to reflect 20th-century African American experience. With Salesman, the marvel is how well a play created for “white actors,” as Wilson once described Miller’s masterpiece, is able to reflect black experience in the right hands (in this case co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell). But King Hedley is deeply rooted in black life. This play is a bespoke piece of art that could only ever fit the people for whom it was made. Yes, it is too long. And the cast appears to lose stamina in the final third of the show’s three hours and then some. But in a cast led by British comedian-turned-serious-actor Lenny Henry, the performances are as good as any on the London stage.
Henry is in commanding, charismatic form as the raffish hustler and part-time philosopher Elmore, who could con the coins out of a parking meter. And Martina Laird, as Elmore’s former lovelorn lover Ruth, magnificently projects a world-weary poise. But it is relative newcomer Aaron Pierre who steals the show with an electrifying tour de force as ex-convict King. It is a performance of seething anger in which hope for a law-abiding life is stunted at every turn by disadvantage. The anger he projects could shatter light bulbs.
Yet even more than this, it is the sheer ambition of Fall’s production that is the biggest surprise here – particularly in a theatre that, despite its Royal moniker, is very much a local playhouse. Peter McKintosh’s design of Pittsburgh’s neglected quarter is a triumph of realism, and Howard Harrison’s lighting design has the ability to not only light up the stricken streets but the psychology of the people who live there.
The show richly deserves to join Death of a Salesman, which is due to transfer to the West End. But no such announcement has been made. And as Pierre’s King knows, what you deserve and what you get are two very different things.