Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson has returned to his Pittsburgh roots for the world premiere of his King Hedley II, which opens Dec. 15, christening a new venue for Pittsburgh Public Theatre.
Wilson was in residence for rehearsals leading up to the Dec. 11 first preview of the drama, set in his steel-town neighborhood known as the Hill District. King Hedley II is the first work to be seen at the Public's new $20 million downtown cultural-center space, the O'Reilly Theater.
"Returning home with my new play given pride of place in that building is the highlight of my career," Wilson said in a statement. The 650-seat thrust O'Reilly, run by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, had its official ribbon-cutting Dec. 9. Guests at the reception honoring the space walked over or around the stage and set, which is covered with dirt to represent a back yard in Pittsburgh. Architect Michael Graves designed the new theatre.
Known for writing lengthy pre-production scripts full of pungent raw material that is eventually boiled down to award-winning work, Wilson reworked the King Hedley II script during the rehearsal process. The drama, a kind of continuation of Wilson's Seven Guitars, continues to Jan. 16, 2000.
Marion Isaac McClinton, a veteran director of and actor in Wilson plays, directs the co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre. Seattle Rep will present the West Coast premiere in March 2000.
The play takes place in 1985 in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the setting for most of Pittsburgh-native Wilson's plays, and tells the story of King and his friend, Mister, who try to make ends meet by selling refrigerators. King lives with his wife, Tonya, and his mother Ruby (a holdover character from Seven Guitars). Secrets and shared legacies are unearthed when Elmore, a suave gambler from Ruby's past, comes to visit.
The cast of King Hedley II includes Russell Andrews (Mister), Charles Brown (Elmore), Ella Joyce (Tonya), Tony Todd (King), Marlene Warfield (Ruby) and Mel Winkler (Stool Pigeon).
Designers are Broadway vets David Gallo (scenic), Toni-Leslie James (costumes) and Donald Holder (lights). The assistant director is Olusegun Ojewuyi. AT&T is the production's exclusive sponsor.
King Hedley II tickets are $15-$42. Some performances are already sold out. Ask about student discounts for Friday and Saturday performances.
For tickets and further information, call (412) 316-1600 or visit the Public's new box office at the O'Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. For group sales call (412) 316-8200, ext. 704.
Wilson, a Pittsburgh native and Seattle resident who sets many of his plays in his Pennsylvania hometown, told The Seattle Times in 1998 that the main character in King Hedley II "This one's set in the '80s, when you have all this violence and these kids with guns running around. I'm exploring three generations trying to cope with the breakdown of civility in the black community."
The play is number eight in a planned series of 10 works tracing the African-American experience, decade by decade, in the 20th century.
Plays in the cycle so far include Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1910s), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1920s), The Piano Lesson (1930s), Seven Guitars (1940s), Fences (1950s), Two Trains Running (1960s) and Jitney (1970s).
Wilson won Pulitzer Prizes for Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990) and a Tony Award for Best Play for Fences. He won New York Drama Critics Circle awards for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars. He received a 1995 Emmy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of The Piano Lesson.
His lesser-known early works include the one-act plays The Janitor, Recycle, The Coldest Day of the Year, Malcolm X, The Homecoming and the musical satire Black Bart and the Sacred Hills.
Wilson is the chairman of the board for the African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA). The formation of AGIA heeded a call made in the famous industry speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," which Wilson gave at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group conference at Princeton. AGIA is dedicated to creating an environment to support artistic excellence and to promote the advancement and preservation of black theater and black performing arts.
Wilson was born and raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and makes his home in Seattle. He is the father of two daughters, Sakina Ansari and Azula Carmen Wilson, and is married to costume designer Constanza Romero.
Director McClinton directed Wilson's Jitney (Pittsburgh Public Theater, Huntington Theatre, Center Stage, Studio Area, GeVa Theatre, and Goodman Theatre), Seven Guitars (Center Stage and Pittsburgh Public Theater), Two Trains Running (Center Stage) and The Piano Lesson (Penumbra Theatre).
He has also staged works for some of the most prominent resident theatre companies in the U.S.: La Jolla Playhouse, Arena Stage, Joseph Papp Public Theater, Second Stage Theatre, Dallas Theater Center and more. He appeared in Wilson's Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, Jitney, The Homecoming, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Fences.
As a playwright, McClinton penned Police Boys, Who Causes Darkness?, Hunters of the Soul, Stones and Bones, Walkers and Enlightenment's on an Enchanted Island.
The world premiere is being staged in what is the final season for the Public's fourth artistic director, Edward Gilbert. Ted Pappas, a regional director and choreographer, takes over for the 2000-2001 season, although Pappas is already working toward the scheduling of the new season.