The play by August Wilson is set in Pittsburgh in 1985 and shows King, an African-American ex-con who is pursuing rebuilding his life. His dream is to buy a video store, and he needs 10,000 dollars for that, so he gets involved in selling stolen refrigerators to earn the money. Viewers get to meet his mother, his wife, his friend, a neighbor from next door, and his mother’s former lover. The play is touching and even funny at certain parts, but overall it became one of the darkest and most tragic reflections on African-American life in the 20th century’s drama. Indeed, it gives a rather depressing impression at the end, inevitably provoking thoughts about particular social issues along with emotions about the story.
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Themes and Arguments
First of all, I do not think the play explicitly delivers arguments. It is fiction, and fiction works do not provide direct, explicit messages or judgments. For example, two people with different political views may each regard a movie they watched as supporting their position because they understand it differently. Similarly, the drama tells stories, and the interpretation is often largely up to the viewer. However, what cannot be unseen in King Hedley II is the theme of the social burden borne by African Americans in underprivileged communities. A close perspective is provided to examine the situation King is in as a social issue. However, the play’s content does not boil down to social criticism.
There are moments in the play that reveal profound psychological traits of the characters and their inner conflicts, which makes the play emotionally appealing in addition to its social context. A particularly powerful moment is the scene where Ruby, King’s mother, tells the story of her life. She used to be a singer, and now she is seriously ill and facing family problems, but she remembers the good times with a smile and sadness at the same time, and she sings. It shows how she did not give up on life despite all the hardship she had been through, and this is very movingly demonstrated in the play.
Relation to Criminal Justice
I think that the play raises two major issues about criminal justice. First, King’s troubles with getting back to a normal life show how hard it is to be socially reintegrated and return to honest labor after being in prison. King’s story illustrates the fundamental flaws of the correctional and penitentiary systems. Criminal justice obviously should pursue punishing for violations of the law, but it should also consider that persons should not be excluded from the society or deprived of access to a normal and legal social performance after serving their sentences. Second, there is the issue of the environment. Some environments have been observed to generate crime because of deprivation and economic difficulties.
King Hedley II shows such an environment, raising the question: How should underprivileged communities be addressed for preventing and reducing crime? Also, I would like to discuss how the criminal justice system should incorporate features and mechanisms to stop ex-cons from being involved in crime again. The perspective I propose is to consider that the purpose of criminal justice is not only to punish crime but also to deter it and mitigate it. Former inmates of prisons are a vulnerable group, especially when they get into environments where they initially committed their crimes. I would like to hold a discussion on the impact of environments on rehabilitation and recidivism.