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.