Thoughts on King Hedley II

King Hedley II consolidated noted transferred to substack here:

Dear friends: Is it me or do the plays seem to be getting harder and harder to wrap one’s brain around?

I went to Goodreads. All the King Hedley reviews (except mine) seem rather lukewarm, almost as if August Wilson hit some type of slump. I have some ideas.

For one, this play is about the 80’s. And we can remember the 80’s. So perhaps unconsciously, we look for stuff we remember. But our glance returns to us fatigued, exhausted. It seems there’s nothing in this play we can relate to.

Well, speak for yourself, Ray.

The 80’s were a bit of a lost decade for me. I spent the first half punching holes in the water, as they used to say, doing engineering work on deployed submarines and in shipyards. The second half I spent two years at a small college in Florida, having the time of my young life. That was followed by three years on a 30 year old destroyer, trying to nurse an aged ship and an obviously failed marriage, broken by too frequent separations for months at a time and instances of my own stupidity and immaturity. I wrote in my memoir that by the end of the 80’s I was slipping into darkness, to quote the lyrics of a then popular song. It was not a part of my plan. A poetry writing lady saved me from the abyss. A poetry writing man saves us all, perhaps. Maybe. Almost.

OK. Now we begin to see stuff in the play, perhaps. Man, I need some coffee.

The casual references to crime and to committing criminal acts in the play seem both strange and off-putting. King and Mister don’t seem to think twice about selling stolen refrigerators, or even robbing a local jewelry store. Not once does the idea of returning to jail serve as a deterrence to committing more crime, because, I suppose, “we won’t get caught this time.” Silly and senseless. King’s overreactions to petty indiscretions and daily microaggressions seem overwrought.

Aha! At this point we have accepted the status quo.

King and Elmore share their experience of performing the act of murder, the act itself, and how it made them feel. But it is outside the realm of our experience. They no longer seem sympathetic. Even Tonya’s long monologue about the abortion she wants to get (and never does, we find out later) might seem out of place for our sensibilities because either 1) it’s not a part of our experience, or 2) if it is, we don’t want to think about it.

Finally, no mention is made in the play of the crack cocaine pandemic of the 80’s. You think Hill residents were spared the ravages of that scourge? I don’t think so. It is there, between the lines.

Spoiler alert! King wins the battle between revenge and forgiveness in the end. Yet he still dies, he has to die. He’s been wearing the halo and his blood sacrifice is what’s required. He is the fatted calf Stool Pigeon has been looking for. The meow of the dead cat as the final curtain falls signals to us that there is cause for hope. This tragedy is Judeo-Christian, not Greco-Roman. Aunt Ester’s children will find their redemption. It is just a matter of time.


p.s. Here is the YouTube playlist:

Consolidated notes from previous sessions

Here’s my review in Goodreads:

Postscript. More on the death of Aunt Ester

First to clear the air. Notwithstanding the mathematics of Aunt Ester’s age, the arrival of Angolan indentured servants to Jamestown in 1619 was not the first recorded instance of Africans in the continental United States. Ponce de Leon was accompanied by African Juan Garrido in Florida in 1513, in search of the Fountain of Youth. The first group of enslaved African arrived to the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in 1565. 1619 marks the first arrival of Africans to a British settlement.

There is the suggestion in the text of the play from King, by way of Mr. Eli, that Aunt Ester, the matriarch of the Hill community and guardian of its culture, traditions and history, died of grief, with her hand stuck on her forehead. Then there is the suggestion, promoted by the now-spiritual seer Stool Pigeon, that Aunt Ester had to be removed in anticipation of some final judgement.

Either way, the passing of Aunt Ester is a significant turning point for the neighborhood, especially for those who sought her counsel at various occasions, including Stool Pigeon, Mister, King and Ruby.

Aunt Ester’s passing, more significantly, marks a turning point for the Cycle. First introduced chronologically in Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester dissuaded Ruby from getting an abortion in Seven Guitars, actively counseled characters in Two Trains Running, dies in King Hedley II, and figures prominently in Radio Golf. Aunt Ester’s Stoic teachings of sacrifice, self-knowledge, and personal responsibility held the community together through many struggles over the decades of the Cycle. Now, in her absence, for those who know, there is curiosity about how the community will survive.

At the closing off the final scene, blood from King’s fatal bullet wound flows into the grave of Aunt Ester’s cat and we hear a “meow” as the curtain falls. There is a suggestion that Aunt Ester may yet be with us and that all will not be lost.

Postscript. Reimagining George Floyd as King Hedley II (and vice versa).

King Hedley is a complicated character. He seems to have an anti-Midas touch, i.e., nothing he touches turns to gold. A good way to understand him is by comparing him to George Floyd, another complicated character. Floyd, like Hedley, was a seeming ne’er-do-well with a predilection for violence and criminal activity. Floyd even exceeded Hedley when it came to fathering five children across the country that he in turn abandoned. He was a failed athlete and a failed hip-hop artist, spending most of his adult life in and out of prison serving eight jail terms for various minor charges and convictions.

Because of the circumstances surrounding his death, George Floyd’s memory has been lionized and the sins of his prior life forgiven and forgotten. Peaceful protestors have demanded stern punishment for the police officer associated with his passing. Floyd’s death has been co-opted by politicians for political fundraising and support for calls to reform and defund police departments across the country.

For NaPoWriMo, I wrote a poem I called “Hedley’s Blues,” highlighting these and other similarities. In the end, Hedley’s unwilling sacrifice provided unforeseen opportunities for renewal for his community. Here is the poem:

Hedley’s Blues

They ask us to require this sacrifice.
Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Blood for blood.
This sacrifice will somehow make us whole,
Cure our ailments, fill the gaps you left
When they sold you down river for a song.
Those who bought you never knew stolen goods
Was all you were, living on borrowed time
And leaving casualties in your wake.
You were the sacrifice, the fatted calf,
your unwilling blood a fitting offering
To the gods. Once. Spilled on the seeded ground
Of hopes and dreams – your intoxication.
There’s no balm in revenge. So there’s no need
For a present value calculation.

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