Chalk up another Broadway victim of the summer theatrical doldrums: King Hedley II, the latest drama by Pulitzer-winner August Wilson. The bleak tale of a black man defeated by pride and fate opened to mixed to-positive reviews May 1 and will end July 1, after 24 previews and only 72 regular performances.
Though the show was a Best Play Tony nominee (beaten by Proof), with Viola Davis winning a Featured Actress Award, grosses were generally below $200,000 per week (out of a $563K potential), with box office attendance at less than fifty percent.
Marion McClinton, who staged Off-Broadway's recently-extended Breath, Boom, directed Hedley, which stars Brian Stokes Mitchell, a Tony winner for Kiss Me, Kate. There have already been three post-Tony casualties on Broadway: Jane Eyre, Bells Are Ringing and A Class Act. Reviewers generally praised Hedley's dialogue, dramatic power and seriousness of purpose but had difficulty with the show's plotting, convoluted back-story and tendency toward long verbal "arias."
August Wilson's drama reached New York City after a long and circuitous tour of the nation's regional houses, capped by a month-long sojourn in Washington DC ending March 25. King Hedley previews began at Broadway's Virginia Theatre April 10. The show was to open April 29 but delayed two days owing to star Mitchell needing several days' vocal rest before the premiere.
Continuing his decade-by-decade examination of African-American life in the United States, author Wilson sets King Hedley II in 1985 in the black ghetto of Pittsburgh and deals with the triumphs and trials of a community torn apart. King Hedley rages against his past and present and his pregnant wife, Tonya, fears to bring a child into their world. A two time Pulitzer Prize-winner, Wilson also wrote Fences, The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars. Brian Stokes Mitchell's casting was announced in early February, while he was still performing the Tony-winning role of Fred Graham in Kiss Me, Kate. Mitchell told Playbill On-Line that he had been planning to take several months off when the offer to play Hedley suddenly came in. After reading the play and meeting with director Marion McClinton, Mitchell decided to forego his long-anticipated vacation. He did not, however, give up a movie gig, the shooting of which limited his rehearsal period prior to the D.C. opening. Mitchell had been contracted to stay with Hedley until early September, at which point he'd go straight into rehearsal for the London production of Kiss Me, Kate, set to bow in the West End in October.
Viola Davis, who plays Tonya, appeared on Broadway in Wilson's Seven Guitars, a work that is a sort of prequel to Hedley. Also in the cast are Leslie Uggams as Ruby, Hedley's mother; Charles Brown as Elmore; Stephen McKinley Henderson as Stool Pigeon; and Monte Russell as Mister. The characters of Ruby and Stool Pigeon are carried over from Seven Guitars.
Hedley debuted at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and then ran at the Huntington Theatre in Boston before beginning L.A. performances Sept. 2, 2000. A Chicago run at the Goodman Theatre followed, Nov. 30, 2000-Jan. 13, 2001.
Significant changes were made to the cast of Hedley in its progression across the nation. Stokes is at least the fifth King Hedley in the production's history. Tony Todd played the part in Pittsburgh and Boston. Harry Lennix was crowned king at La Jolla, only to have Jerome Butler steal his title during the run's last week. Finally, Richard Brooks starred in Chicago. Ruby has been played, in chronological order, by Marlene Warfield, Juanita Jennings, and Uggams. Tonya, meanwhile, has been enacted by Ella Joyce, Mone Walton and Yvette Ganier, before Davis was hired. Charles Brown is the only actor to have remained with the show from the start.
Tickets are $25-$70. For more information, call (212) 467-4600.