Female Voices Strike a Vibrant Chord In Wilson's '20th Century'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The clouds briefly part about midway through the first act of "King Hedley II." This rambling, fidget-inducing drama by August Wilson, set in the Pittsburgh of 1985, revolves around the rapidly fading hopes for redemption of a lug named King, a charismatic if violent ex-convict who seems incapable of getting out of the way of his own bad karma.

The story, the closest thing to a sequel in the Wilson canon of 20th-century plays, has the feel of excess baggage -- until you are slapped to attention by a bracingly pitiless speech by Tonya, King's wife, and the actress who delivers it, Heather Alicia Simms.

If we're reminded at times in "August Wilson's 20th Century" -- the Kennedy Center's month-long script-in-hand stagings of the dramatist's canon, each play set in a different decade of the century -- that some of his work falls short of the sublime "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" or "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," this event is reacquainting audiences with other facets of his talent. Namely, that although his plots often pivot on the foibles and thwarted dreams of African American men, Wilson conceived for the women who have to live with the consequences of the men's actions -- as Tonya's speech reveals -- wrenching tragedies all their own.

Some of the best of these roles are found in three plays set in the middle decades of Wilson's 10-play cycle: the smoothly atmospheric '40s-set play "Seven Guitars," the dramatically vibrant "Fences" and the flawed "King Hedley II," which elaborates on events in "Seven Guitars." And the actresses who have been chosen to fill them in the Terrace Theater -- Vanessa Bell Calloway and Crystal Fox of "Guitars," Tamara Tunie of "Fences" and Simms and Lynda Grav┬┐tt of "Hedley" -- help us hear Wilson's compassion for these women, who seem always at the mercy of men who are troubled, and trouble.

The voices of the women are tinged with the special rage of the powerless, and on the occasions the playwright allows them to rise in grief as well as anger, the effect can be exhilarating. As when Rose, the long-suffering wife in the '50s-set "Fences," reacts after her husband, Troy, discloses both a horrific betrayal and a truly galling rationale: that he's strayed because he's been "standing in the same place for 18 years."

"I been standing with you!" exclaims Rose, who is played by Tunie with a gently becoming authority. "I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life, too. Don't you think I ever wanted other things? Don't you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me?"

Rose's outcry crystallizes a notion that runs through many of the plays of the early and middle decades, that the women are under the weight of two thumbs: the one that holds their men down, and the one the men hold down on them. A most appealing aspect of "Fences" -- Wilson's most commercially successful play, if also his most conventional -- is that Rose grows in strength even as the embittered Troy seems to wither. Although his grip on the family is not erased by his death, the sense emerges, in Kenny Leon's well-directed staging, that Rose and their son Cory (the excellent Anthony Mackie) are beginning to break the cycles of the past, that a husband and father's dashed hopes and unhappiness do not have to be a legacy.

Wilson's women are not all symbols of oppression. In "Seven Guitars" -- shepherded evocatively here by director Derrick Sanders -- the dramatist creates one of his most beguiling free spirits, a young coquette named Ruby, whose dalliances set in motion a complicated question of parentage that resurfaces in "Hedley," also directed by Sanders. (The title of the latter play is the name of Ruby's wayward son.) Crystal Fox is the Ruby of "Guitars," and she's smashing in the role, speaking her lines and showing off her body in ways that at once communicate boredom and lust.

Because the notes struck in "King Hedley" are often so heavy-handed -- even the prominent scar that mars the cheek of Russell Hornsby's imposing King seems like overly literal commentary -- the challenge for the actors appears more daunting, too. That might be why Simms's turn as Tonya is especially memorable. She is another of Wilson's gallery of characters immersed in disappointment: Her husband and her daughter by another man are on separate paths to self-destruction. And Simms makes of Tonya's sorrow something as accessible as any emotion in any of the plays.

Her indelible moment is one of those urgent speeches that Wilson bestows so generously on actors. In this case, the subject is Tonya's pregnancy and why she is determined to terminate it. It's an elegy to futility, ranging over the innumerable heartaches of raising a child in Pittsburgh's violence-prone Hill District, where the play is set. A place so forbidding that when you call the undertaker, the line is busy and you "got to call back five times."

Tonya's outrage seems to stop the clock. Even though Simms is reading from a script, the words sound new. And they float in the consciousness long after the book has been closed.

August Wilson's 20th Century: Seven Guitars, directed by Derrick Sanders, Thursday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m.; Fences, directed by Kenny Leon, April 4 at 7:30 p.m.; King Hedley II, directed by Sanders, April 6 at 2 p.m. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.

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