First play named for a character. First true tragedy. But was it really? King is sacrificed, the blood spills on the buried cat that belonged to Aunt Ester, and the curtain falls with the sound of a meow. The cat has one more life? Has Aunt Ester been resurrected perhaps? And does that signal a redemption of sorts?First play with continuation of characters from previous play (Seven Guitars):
1. Canewell becomes Stool Pigeon
2. Red Carter’s son: Mister
3. Ruby continues
4. King Hedley II is son of Ruby and Hedley (and Leroy)
5. Aunt Ester, still unseen, dies
6. Louise raises Ruby’s son King in absentia.
A few things caught my interest in King Hedley II. First of all the Greek Chorus that Wilson has Stool Pigeon provide in the opening of the play. From Wikipedia:
Greek choruses sometimes had a leader known as the coryphaeus. He sometimes came first to introduce the chorus, and sometimes spoke for them if they were taking part in the action. The entrances and exits of the coryphaeus and his chorus served the same way curtains do in a modern theatre.
So Stool Pigeon, who was Canewell in Seven Guitars, now doubles as Seer, Spirit Guide, Supporter of Aunt Ester (like Holloway in Two Trains) and coryphaeus in Wilson’s attempt to connect to Greek classical drama (my spin). Canewell did say in Seven Guitars, “If I could put the music down I would have been a preacher. Many times I felt God was calling. But the devil was calling too, and it seem like he called louder. God speak in a whisper and the devil shout.”
Additionally, Stool Pigeon gets his Bible quotations wrong every time…unless he represents the promotion of a new synthesis of religion/mythology, a blending of Christian concepts with local African American spiritualism and all combined with African ideas of philosophy and religious belief, which puts it in line with previous plays in the series that touted African concepts (Turnbo in Jitney, Toledo in Ma Rainey, Bynum in Joe Turner, ultimately Berniece in Piano Lesson, and Holloway in 7 Guitars).
Tonya has the longest single speaking role (end of Scene 2). It’s a very memorable speech made even more famous because it was spoken by a then relatively unknown Viola Davis, a role for which she won the Tony for best actor.King signals early on that he is the one “anointed” to make a sacrifice. He asks Mister, and again, asks Stool Pigeon, “Can you see my halo?”
The conversations with King (Act 2, Scene 2) and with Elmore (Act 2, Scene 4) where they describe the choices they made in the taking of human life, both sub-climaxes in the play, are troublesome to say the least. The casual brandishing of weapons, even including Ruby with the palm-sized derringer, is a bit troubling. And all the petty premeditated criminal acts, selling stolen refrigerators, robbing the jewelry store, all signal a community in the final stages of decay . . .Interesting point raised in class.
What if Stool Pigeon really is the Greek Chorus? And what if he is speaking to a specific audience or saying things that no one else could say and preserve their theatric credibility. Taking it a step further, what if Ruby represents the Greek Siren, luring unsuspecting sailors to shipwreck on a rocky course? Could August Wilson be using these classical “motifs” subconsciously to establish his chops and links to the classical and neoclassical tradition? Wouldn’t that be something?The death of Aunt Ester is an additional climax in the play, as is the accidental death of King at the play’s end. The play has overlapping and intersecting climaxes, in fact.
Events of the mid-1980’s: https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1980-1989-45446
1984 – W. Wilson Goode becomes the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia.The Cosby Show makes its debut on NBC. It will become the most successful series featuring an African-American cast in television history.
1985 – Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode orders Philadelphia law enforcement agents to bomb the headquarters of MOVE. The bombing leaves 250 people homeless and 11 dead.Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first African-American to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate.
1986 – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday is celebrated across the United States.Six crew members die when the Challenger space shuttle explodes after it launches from the Kennedy Space Center. One of the crew members is African-American astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair.
The Oprah Winfrey show becomes a nationally syndicated talk show.Producer and director Spike Lee debuts his feature film, She’s Gotta Have It.
Mike Tyson becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world when he defeats Trevor Berbick.
1987 – Rita Dove wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Reginald Lewis becomes the first African-American CEO of a billion dollar corporation when he orchestrates the buyout of Beatrice Foods. Dr. Benjamin Carson, a neurosurgeon leads a team of seventy surgeons at John Hopkins University Hospital in a 22-hour operation separating Siamese twins.
Dr. Johnetta B. Cole becomes the first African-American woman to preside over Spelman College.Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.Novelist and essayist James Baldwin dies from stomach cancer.
Session #2 (11.11.2018)
A lot of stuff happens in this 8th play in the August Wilson American Century Cycle, King Hedley II. Lots of events. But none of it sticks with me more, however, than the death of Aunt Ester, the Hill and Cycle matriarch. We may get around to making a list, but let’s begin with Aunt Ester’s death, a sort of central event around which everything else rotates.First, let’s be clear. We know Aunt Ester isn’t over 300 years old as stated. We know by this point in our reading that Aunt Esther represents a series of black women, in an unbroken chain, all of whom have provided advice, wisdom, and practical knowledge to folks who sought her assistance, over the years.
The year of her birth, 1619, aligns with the first recording of Africans from Angola landing by ship in the British colony in Jamestown. Some say they arrived as indentured servants, a legal term describing the physical characteristics of a type of contract, duplicated on either end of a piece of paper, then indented and cut into two pieces with a specific pattern for future authentication. Some say they arrived as slaves. I guess it makes a difference to those who for whom it makes a difference, but on the Hill, and in the world that August Wilson has created, it was the birth year of Aunt Ester.
What’s most important here is the year not of Aunt Ester’s birth, but of her death, 1985, because it represents, for some reason or reasons we can discuss later, the end of a chain, the end of a continuous personality, present up to this time, in the community. That bodes ill for the Hill and the community. We get the first signal in the Stool Pigeon soliloquy in Wilson’s Prologue, and we immediately know something is off, out of kilter, because no previous play has had such a prologue. Stool Pigeon says, “Aunt Ester knows. But the path to her house is all grown over with weeds, you can’t hardly find the door no more.” Then, early, in Scene 1, Stool Pigeon makes the mournful announcement, “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamp down low! We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!”
King, in Scene 2, after asking Stool Pigeon if he can see King’s halo, points to a gold key ring that Aunt Ester gave him when he used to keep her grass cut. Note: a key ring, not a key. King’s obsession with people seeing his halo (he asks three times throughout the play, to Mister, to Stool Pigeon and to Elmore) might suggest King’s awareness at some level of consciousness that he has been sanctified or chosen for a mission.
On the night of Aunt Ester’s passing, a strong wind blew through the neighborhood and all the lights went out for a few moments. Some of the neighbors mourn for three days (modern religion, Catholicism) but some mourn until she is buried (African traditional faith). Stool Pigeon, aka Canewell in Seven Guitars, now the neighborhood historian, mystic and archivist, has a variety of rationalizations regarding events surrounding Aunt Ester’s passing, as do Mister (Red Carter’s son) and King (Hedley’s son). Aunt Ester’s cat dies and Stool Pigeon buries her in the yard near the garden where King is trying to grow flowers. Stool Pigeon decides to get a goat or a fatted calf to pour its blood on the cat’s grave, remarking that Aunt Ester can come back if the cat has any of its nine lives left.
Fast forward to the end of the play. Let’s unpack the action.
Elmore, Mister and King are gambling with dice.King accuses Elmore of cheating and kicks Elmore (who killed his true father, Leroy, years ago, though he just learned that from Elmore).
Elmore tried to get up, but by this time, King has a machete to Elmore’s throat.
King is unable to kill Elmore, and sticks the machete into the ground.
Elmore draws a gun on King and Ruby runs into the house.
Elmore lowers the gun and fires it into the ground (just like King stuck the machete into the ground).
Hearing the gunfire and having last seen Elmore pointing the gun at King, Ruby calls out Elmore’s name.
Ruby enters the yard firing the Derringer she got from Mister earlier thinking she is firing at Elmore, perhaps.
The bullet hits King in the neck, instantly killing him.
King’s blood flows onto the ground near the grave of Aunt Ester’s buried cat.
Stool Pigeon delivers his final monologue, and as the lights go down, the meow of a cat is heard.
King’s spilled blood, already anointed, has revived the cat, by extension, which means there is hope for the resurrection and continuation of Aunt Ester.
Session #3 King Hedley II (5.8.2019)
I’d like to focus on just three elements of this penultimate play in the American Century Cycle. First, there is the structure of the play, especially with the single narrator Prologue by Stool Pigeon, formerly known as Canewell the harmonica player in Seven Guitars, an expert on roosters. If this play were a Greek tragedy, and some may argue that it may be, Stool Pigeon fulfills the role of the Greek Chorus, and of Coryphaeus, the leader of the Greek Chorus, in the Prologue, and everywhere he speaks in the play. Let that sink in for a minute, then go back through the play and attribute all Stool Pigeon’s speaking parts to the Greek Chorus, beginning at the very end of Scene 1, “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamps down low! We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!“
In brief, the function of the chorus in Greek Drama is to provide commentary on actions and events occurring in the play, to allow time and space to the playwright to control the atmosphere and expectations of the audience, to allow the playwright to prepare the audience for key moments in the storyline, and to underline certain elements and downplay others. Go back and re-read Stool Pigeon’s parts and it becomes evident that is the role he is playing.
And oh, by the way, Stool Pigeon often quoted the Bible throughout the play. But guess what? None of those quotes are actually from the Bible that most folks know about. I postulated in an earlier session that his quotes may actually be from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a book written in the early 1900’s that became popular among New Age spiritual groups in the 70’s and 80’s.
The second element that stood our during my reading was King’s insistence, first to Mister (in Act 1 Scene 1) and later to Elmore (in Act 2 Scene 1), that he had a halo above his head. (Could have also been early signs of glaucoma!) King is alerting folks around him (and in the audience) that he has been singled out for a special purpose, a special mission in life.
The play is a tragedy for King. Nothing works out right. He has been lied to all his life about his parentage. He has resorted to a life of petty crime. Now his wife has promised to abort the baby he had high hopes of raising, in his mind possibly his last chance at redemption. He had a relationship with Aunt Ester, and she gave him a gold key ring, but without a key (we’ll get back to that in the third element).
Tonya’s monologue on abortion is the the longest in the play. Abortion can be a touchy subject but the fact that it occupies so much real estate in the play forces us to face it squarely. Tonya’s defense is persuasive (to everybody except King) and equally compelling. Abortions are legal after Roe v. Wade, accessible, and relatively inexpensive. By all measures, it is a convenient option for Tonya for all the reasons she so eloquently states.
But historical numbers and trends tell an interesting story, one to which August Wilson calls our attention. In the aggregate, CDC reports 45,789,558 abortions performed in the U.S. between 1970 and 2015 (California, Maryland and New Hampshire do not report abortions to CDC, so this is by definition an undercount). In 2013, CDC reported 134,814 (37.3%) white, 128,682 (35.6%) black, and 68,761 (19.0) (Hispanic) abortions performed (same under-reporting applies, but overall percentages have been trending lower for whites and higher for blacks and Hispanics over the past few years). Without going into much detail, simple arithmetic says over 16 million black babies aborted since 1970.
Hedley explains at the end of Act 2 Scene 3 what, to him, is the significance of this pregnancy:
“That’s why I need this baby, not ’cause I took something out of the world, but because I wanna put something in it. Let everybody know I was here. You got King Hedley II and then you got King Hedley III. Got rocky dirt. Got glass and bottles. But it still deserves to live. Even if you do have to call the undertaker. Even if somebody come along and pull it out by the root. It still deserve to live. It still deserves that chance.”
Spoiler alert! At the end of the play King dies a grisly, ritualistic death, cementing his personal tragedy. But there is yet redemption in King’s ultimate price payment. His spilled blood (he is shot in the neck) makes its way to the grave of Aunt Ester’s cat and the cat returns to life (magical realism) with a meow as the lights go down and the set fades to black. Maybe it means there is a possibility for a resurrection of Aunt Ester and salvation for her people. We have to read Act Three to know for sure.
OK. The third element. The Key to the Mountain. Early in Act 2, Scene 5, King returned to the yard, having learned earlier that Leroy was his real father, and carrying his false father’s machete, loaded for bear (Elmore). Scene 5 has competing choruses, spurring King on to two alternate and opposite outcomes. Mister, son of Red Carter in Seven Guitars, tells King, “Blood for blood,” urging him to fulfill a destiny of extracting revenge, that will surely result in his death. Meanwhile, Stool Pigeon reminds King, “You got the Key to the Mountain,” which is forgiveness even in the face of a great wrong, an alternate destiny that results in life. King chooses forgiveness, sticking the machete into the ground. In turn, Elmore chooses to forgive, firing his gun into the ground and not towards King. Then, confused perhaps from the sounds in the yard, Ruby appears and fires the pistol Mister gave her, without looking perhaps, we don’t really know, fatally shooting King in the throat.
In the battle of competing choruses, Stool Pigeon wins out, King fulfills his destiny, and his sacrifice restores life to Aunt Ester.
Session #4 – King Hedley II notes (5.5.20)
First, I note that this is the only play in the cycle named for an ensemble character.
King Hedley II is one of only two plays in the cycle that contains a formal prologue, the other being Gem of the Ocean. Seven Guitars has a first scene that plays the role of a prologue, though it is not formally named as such. Similarly, four plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and Fences have very beautifully written scene setters and “The Play” introductions. Rounding out the cycle, Two Trains Running and Radio Golf have neither prologues or scene setters and, instead, plunge the reader or playgoer directly into the action of the first act.
Additionally, the Prologue in King Hedley connects us by theme or by content to four other plays in the cycle, Two Trains Running (mention of ham bones), Gem of the Ocean (the prevalence of Aunt Ester mentions), Seven Guitars (Stool Pigeon, the narrator, exists as younger Canewell in Seven Guitars), and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (the narrator sounds peculiarly like Bynum).
Finally, Stool Pigeon sets up in the Prologue that something less than pleasant is about to befall the cycle’s heroine, Aunt Ester. As readers and playgoers, we are placed on warning of ominous things to come.
King seems obsessed throughout the play with the existence of a halo around his head and his concern that other people may or may not be able to see said halo. (A halo is a circle of light around the head of a holy figure, whether a saint, an angel, or a god). Why might King be concerned about having a halo? On three separate occasions, King’s halo is the subject of conversation: between Mister and Tonya in Act 1 Scene 1; King asks Stool Pigeon in Act 1 Scene 2; and in Act 2, Scene 1, King asks Elmore. On one level, it appears King is seeking affirmation or approval or recognition from his closest friends. But on another level, we have to ask the question, is King OK mentally? Based on other things he has said and decisions he has made, I think we have to wonder about King’s mental health state.
Of course, that begs a different, bigger and broader question. How much of this life of incarceration, joblessness, and government-sanctioned mistreatment can a normal person be expected to take and to endure before they mentally reach a breaking point? And is that the goal? And is that what August Wilson is pointing out in the cycle of plays? These are questions that might arise and need to be considered.
King and Mister have a couple of on-going criminal activities they are involved in. They seem to move into and out of criminal activity and back to their “normal” lives with ease and without a second thought. That is slightly concerning.
King and Mister are hustling stolen refrigerators with a guy King served time with to make money to invest in a video store (that may be a pipe dream, but it seems plausible). When Elmore arrives, he is easily drawn into the refrigerator hustle because it makes money (it’s funny, I found myself comparing this hustle to the practice in Fences of buying furniture and appliances from a door-to-door salesman who has inside knowledge that people have been refused credit. While usurious, this is considered completely legitimate.)
When hustling refrigerators is not turning over cash fast enough, King and Mister decide to rob a local jewelry store. King is an ex-con (I’m not sure about Mister but it seems like he might be) and one would think he would think twice about something that might land him back in prison. But no! Without much forethought or planning, they decide on the spur of the moment to rob this jewelry store! And it appears they get away with it!
It appears that the threat of incarceration is no longer a disincentive to criminal activity. That is a worrisome state!
Death of Aunt Ester
At the end of Act 1 Scene 1 we learn that Aunt Ester has died. That singular event controls and forms the pivot for the remaining of the action and plot development of the play. There is no longer a source of wisdom in the community, nobody to go to for counseling, soul-washing, or just friendly motherly advice. It’s a big loss to the community and to the ensemble, many of whom had previous interactions with Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester’s house reappears in Radio Golf in a central role, but absent any magical realism injections, Aunt Ester’s direct influence is done.
Neesi was apparently King’s first love and Tonya thinks he is still carrying a torch for her. There is an interesting process Wilson uses to weave Neesi into the story line and into our minds as readers and playgoers. King introduces her in Scene 2 in the imperfect past when he tells Mister he used to tell her he wanted to have a baby. Then, a bit later, King talks about not being able to get Tonya off his mind now that he is with Tonya. Then a few lines later he mentions that she testified against him, betraying his trust. Then, and only then, we learn that Neesi got killed in a car accident and because he was in prison King wasn’t able to get out to go to the funeral.
I’ve written earlier about King’s sense of honor, and about his cavalier attitude towards committing murder. I don’t think I’ve written or even mentioned King as the quintessential Stoic (within bounds). King is aware of the limits of his control over things, i.e., his judgements and opinions, not external things. He says in Scene 2,
“I set me out a little circle and anything come inside my circle I say what happen and don’t happen. God’s in charge of some things. If I jump in and shoot you I ain’t gonna blame it on God. That’s where I’m the boss . . . I can decide whether you live or die. I’m in charge of that.”
Let’s look for a minute at another silent character, Walter Kelly. We are first introduced to Walter Kelly in Scene 2 in a conversation King is having with his mother, Ruby. He says to her, “Go on now and leave me with my business. I don’t need you to tell me nothing. Go tell Walter Kelly.” (p.43). At this point, we don’t have any notion who Walter Kelly is, but we assume he is someone Ruby had some dealings with while she was away during King’s youth. Then, in Scene 3 (p.50), Ruby spills the tea. In a conversation with Mister, she reveals that Mister’s father, Red Carter, introduced Ruby to Walter Kelly in East St. Louis. Kelly, a musician, was putting his band together and wanted Ruby to sing with him. Then, later on, in Act 2 Scene 3 (p. 83), Ruby, in a bit of locker room talk with Tonya, gives us explicit details about their break-up while explaining her decision to stop singing.
One more little thing and I will stop. In Scene 2 (p.28), there is an exchange between Ruby and Stool Pigeon that seems a bit of a non-sequitur.
Ruby: You old buzzard! Go on in the house!
Stool Pigeon: I don’t want you, woman!
Why would he say that to her without barely a provocation? There must be history there (no evidence of bad blood between the two in Seven Guitars. Maybe its just a one off).
Finally, I wrote a great deal in previous sessions about Tonya’s decision to get an abortion. However, on close inspection, it appears that Tonya didn’t even get the abortion despite all her protestations and justifications. At the end of Act 2, Scene 3, Tonya says to King, “Your job is to be around so this baby can know you its daddy.” There was no abortion and its mention was just a red herring by Wilson to get us thinking about it.
Consolidated notes on King Hedley II
YouTube Playlist on King Hedley II