The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

King Hedley II takes place in the backyards of the title character and of Stool Pigeon and in the vacant lot between the two houses. The play consists of two acts. A prologue starts the play, with Stool Pigeon entering to give some ham to a cat. He talks to the cat about a fish market as a means of discussing the broken state of the world. He prophesies that God will make things right, and everyone must play their part in the divine plan. He also mentions Aunt Ester, a woman who is 366 years old.

Scene 1 presents King Hedley II going into his yard to plant some seeds. He is having financial problems, because his boss did not get the contract for which he was bidding. King’s mother, Ruby, enters and argues about King’s need to get money and restore their phone service. She informs him that one of her former lovers, Elmore, is coming to visit. King becomes angry at Ruby for living in his house, as he was raised by her sister Louise. Ruby has been left the house by Louise, who died of leukemia, and Ruby is waiting for the city to buy it from her.

Mister arrives to get the brochure that he and King use to sell stolen refrigerators. King talks about a dream he had in which he wore a halo around his head. He is waiting for Tonya to get ready so they can go to have their anniversary picture taken. Mister tells King that Pernell’s cousin is in town; he wants to kill King, because King killed Pernell. Tonya enters and Mister compliments her appearance. Tonya reads out loud a letter that Elmore wrote, asking Ruby to forgive him. King gets a gun to keep him safe in case he runs into Pernell’s cousin. As King and Tonya are about to leave, Stool Pigeon enters to tell them that Aunt Ester has died.

Scene 2 opens with Stool Pigeon coming to see King. They both mourn Ester’s passing, and King shows Stool Pigeon a key ring that she gave him. Stool Pigeon tells him to find the key to the promised land. Mister arrives and discusses with King their plans to open a video store.

Elmore arrives and tries to start a crap game with King and Mister, but they end up discussing refrigerators, and Elmore offers to sell some. Tonya exits the house visibly upset, and King confronts her. She is pregnant, and she does not want to have the baby. She does not want to raise a child in such a violent world, knowing that King could be sent to jail at any time. King tries to follow her back into the house, but Ruby warns him not to push Tonya away. King leaves, and Ruby tells Tonya about how Aunt Ester convinced her to have her baby when she was pregnant with King.

Scene 3 begins as Ruby is making breakfast and Elmore is cleaning his gun. They discuss their past, establishing that Elmore has always loved her even though he left her, King’s father was not Hedley but Leroy, and Elmore wants to marry...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bogumil, Mary L. Understanding August Wilson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. An in-depth look at six other plays in Wilson’s ten-play cycle.

Elam, Harry J. The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. Analyzes recurring elements in Wilson’s plays.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. August Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 2000.

Whitaker, Charles. “Is August Wilson America’s Greatest Playwright?” Ebony 56, no. 11 (September, 2001). Includes both a profile and an interview with Wilson.

Wilson, August. The Ground on Which I Stand. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2001. Wilson’s 1996 speech to the Theatre Communication Group.

Wilson, August. “The Light in August.” Interview by Suzan-Lori Parks. American Theatre 22, no. 9 (November, 2005). Interview conducted hours after Wilson announced that he was terminally ill.