August Wilson was an American playwright who had become famous due to a series of ten plays that got the name of The Pittsburgh Cycle. The author himself was born in Pittsburgh and was raised by his single mother, Daisy Wilson, along with the five sisters and brothers. Daisy worked very hard as a janitor in the courthouse of the county to support her children. August’s father, on the other hand, left the family, so the male presence in the household was filled, for some time, by his stepfather, David Bedford, convicted of killing a man in an attempted robbery. Thus, Wilson saw his mother as a guide in his life, a person who taught him black pride.
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King Hedley II is the eighth play from The Pittsburgh Cycle, which premiered in 1999 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. The plot of the play is built around the ex-convict, King II, who is desperately trying to restore his life after the prison and start a new business through another crime (stealing refrigerators). The play also includes his wife, his mother, his best friend, as well as his ex-lover. It is important to note that the play also involves characters present in the previous plays.
Taking place in the 80’s, when violence in and against the African-American community took a turn for the worse, King Hedley II focuses on exploring what can happen with men when they do not reach their goals and with women when they are not supported. Most of the play is dedicated to investigating the nature of people’s feelings, trying to “plant seeds” where nothing will be able to grow, becoming a metaphor for the life of the main character as well as what the African-American community experienced at that time.
The Theme of Violence in King Hedley II
Since the African-American community dealt with social and personal instability at that time, the first theme to explore is the issue of violence as a history lesson, proposed by Alan Nadel in his work August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. The death of Aunt Ester that took place offstage of the play implicated many aspects of the African-American tradition of ritual sacrifice (Nadel 5). Nadel also pointed out at the concept of the “Lazarus Complex” which related to Wilson’s understanding of the gap that existed between spiritual violence and the blues, which is caused by such violence.
However, King’s refusal to take part in the cycle of violence helped the playwright to move beyond the “Lazarus Complex” without trying to re-stage it again. Thus, King Hedley II does not end with the spiritual death of the main character, on the contrary, it ends with the ‘rebirth’ of Aunt Ester, hidden in the meowing of her cat, and then transferred into her presence in the next two plays: Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf.
Thus, in his play August Wilson transfers the nature of the African-American community in the 80’s when it was continuously destroyed by violence, self-destruction, oppression, abandonment, and, subsequently, becoming of high need for both social and spiritual restoration (Krasner 331). Through the description of main character’s life, Wilson shows what can happen when a person’s dreams fail and when the hopes remain unfulfilled. In the tragic essence, King Hedley II is a play that combines two aspects – environment and unfortunate heredity. The sins of King’s father influence his own life.
Thus, the play’s ending is to date the most tragically violent moment ever present in Wilson’s plays. In an attempt to save the life of her son, King’s mother Ruby accidentally shoots him. King’s death can be seen as both the ending and the beginning. When he falls on the grave of Aunt Ester’s dead cat, King symbolically blesses the ground, enabling Aunt Ester’s spirit to resurrect. Now, the main character is seen as the chosen one who sacrificed himself to the community, hoping to better the lives of people that lived after him (Krasner 332).
Motherhood Stereotypes and King Hedley II
In King Hedley II Wilson also explored the theme of maternity and the role women played in the African-American community. The family, the life of which is examined in King Hedley II, is already known from the play Seven Guitars. The pregnancy announced by Ruby in the previous play has now turned into the main character of King. While it is evident that many characters in The Pittsburgh Cycle overlap, King Hedley II and Seven Guitars are the only ones that include the same characters that go through different stages of their lives.
The character of Ruby, King’s mother, was largely influenced by Wilson’s own mother. She is a stereotypical representation of a maternal figure. She thinks that her pregnancy might solve King Hedley’s “mental and physical depreciation”, as mentioned by Amelia Tatum Grabowski in her work She’s a Brick House: August Wilson and the Stereotypes of Black Womanhood (13). “I’m gonna tell him it’s his [my unborn child].
He wants to be the father of my child, and that’s what this child needs,” Ruby declares (Wilson 45). This though makes a suggestion that Ruby desperately attempts to influence other person’s life by forcing him to care for her child. However, despite the failure of Ruby’s plan, she is still occupied with forcing others to take care of her infant and the selected family, a stereotypical interpretation of mothers. This aspect of Ruby’s character was used by Wilson to reinforce the idea of women’s inferiority that existed in the African-American community.
Thus, King Hedley II at large reinforces the stereotypical images of African-American motherhood by means of exploring two motherly figures, which go against the established norms of how to be a mother. Wilson described these women as negative influences on the lives of other characters, especially their children. Ruby was not a good mother to her son since she was rarely present in his life, which caused King to see motherly comfort in another woman, Louise.
Furthermore, the character of Ruby was staged in such a way that at the end of the play she killed her son, although accidentally. The second character is Tonya, who is considering an abortion thus getting rid of her pregnancy (Grabowski 14).
To conclude, August Wilson explores crucial themes inherent to the African-American community – the themes of destruction, violence, restoration, and motherhood. As mentioned by other scholars that explored the works of Wilson, the setting of the play was linked to the instability in the African community, which greatly influenced the lives of separate individuals. King’s attempt to restore his life and start a business is linked to “planting the seeds where nothing can grow”, a metaphor that can be used to describe what the Black community experienced in the 80’s.
Grabowski, Amelia. She’s a Brick House: August Wilson and the Stereotypes of Black Womanhood. 2013. Web.
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Krasner, David. A Companion to Twentieth-Century American Drama, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.
Nadel, Alan. August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle, Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2010. Print.
Wilson, August. King Hedley II, New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2005. Print.