"I was worth $1200 under slavery. Now I'm worth $3.50 an hour. I'm going backwards." So says King Hedley II in the eighth piece in August Wilson's epic cycle.
Wilson aims to write ten plays, chronicling each decade of the 20th century Black American experience. In this latest episode, premiered in the UK by Tricycle Theatre with Birmingham Rep, King is understandably disillusioned with life. Having completed a jail term for murdering the man who badly scarred his face, he returns home to the same struggle he left.
What makes this all the more interesting is that we are in 1980s Pittsburgh. Wilson paints a vivid picture of a time and place where black children are told to aspire to being janitors; where poverty and racism breed more of the same; where King's girlfriend Tonya wants to terminate her pregnancy because she does not want a child younger than her grandchild.
Fear of death also plays a major part - Tonya tells King the story of a neighbour who walks the streets looking for the person responsible for murdering her son. She does not want to have the child and then bury it when it is shot. Likewise, King's foster mother Ruby refuses to marry the love of her life because she doesn't want to watch him die.
It's a superb piece of writing, emotive and powerful, and brilliantly performed by the company of six under the direction of Paulette Randall.
Nicholas Monu's King Hedley is like a loaded gun waiting to go off. And despite his assertions that no one controls him, you can't help wonder whose itchy finger is on the trigger. Full of tension and fury, it's a superb characterisation.
Rakie Ayola and Pat Bowie are also excellent as Tonya and Ruby respectively, both reaching out but thwarted by King's rage.
At Birmingham Rep, where King Hedley II premieres in the studio theatre, the small auditorium adds to the sense of claustrophobia in King's world. My one and only criticism is that a running time of three hours, excluding interval, is an extraordinarily long time to expect an audience to sit still on hard benches - and the discomfort factor totally spoils the evening.
- Elizabeth Ferrie (reviewed at Birmingham Rep)