by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
We are thrilled to have director Timothy Douglas make his Arena Stage debut with King Hedley II. The ninth installment of August Wilson’s acclaimed Century Cycle of plays examining Black America, King Hedley II is one of the most stirring and ferocious explorations of fate, honor and the daily struggles of American life. As rehearsals began, we sat down with Timothy to get his thoughts on the poetry of August Wilson, and his approach to this powerful play.
How many, and which plays, of Wilson’s Century Cycle have you directed?
I’ve directed eight of the ten Century Cycle plays: Gem of the Ocean (4x), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Fences (2x), Two Trains Running, Jitney (2x), King Hedley II and Radio Golf (2x).
You’ve directed King Hedley II before. What excites you about returning to it?
I directed a production with the 2014 graduating class of African-American actors at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, to gratifying results. Due to the authentic eagerness in actors ‘still in the process of becoming,’ they were willing try anything. As a result of our unbridled investigation, we unearthed some deeper truths about this challenging play to great effect. I’m now particularly looking forward to continuing the investigation with the seasoned actors in this production.
Do you remember when you first “discovered” August Wilson’s plays?
I do indeed. I was in the first year of my actor training at Yale School of Drama during the same season that August Wilson was being introduced to the theater world with the premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at Yale Rep. I had the good fortune of understudying the role of Sylvester, and got to spend a fair amount of time in the room during the extraordinary rehearsal process – extraordinary because the influence on me by the promise of the coming juggernaut in response to this auspicious debut was palpable. I would benefit from the same lightning strike over the next two years with my understudy assignments on the original productions of Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
An underlying theme in King Hedley II is the ongoing violence against young black men - and the lack of justice for their deaths. Fifteen years after Wilson wrote Hedley, we’re still struggling with this reality. Do you think the current climate will impact your approach to King Hedley II?
It already has…within me, which is already impacting the lens through which I will navigate the parallels in the play’s acknowledgment of the institutionalized disenfranchisement of black men. The tilt of this lens will also be deeply influenced and impacted by the individual and collective insights of the actors.
At a time when the ongoing plight of black American men has the world’s attention, there is no greater piece of theatrical literature than August Wilson’s King Hedley II for raising a passionate and promising cry at this critical juncture that will determine the evolution of our very existence.
You’ve assembled a pretty incredible cast and design team. What’s your approach to creating the world of King Hedley II?
One thing I’ve come to learn about the structure of King Hedley II is it will benefit most from having all the characters onstage for the entire journey. They serve as active witnesses to the entire process, if you will, which, if nothing else, will convey to audiences a visceral sense of the inescapable and crushing world that is the environment of this play. In casting, I looked for actors who naturally lean in to the ritual of dynamic storytelling, and who demonstrate great stamina in doing so. Wilson is known for giving his actors consistently muscular language to speak, and said stamina is equally required for fellow actors on the receiving end of the storytelling. The most compelling aspect of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Hill District lies in the inner striving and survival of his characters, and the designers and I are creating a physical environment that is at once seemingly impenetrable, and fertile – like the hard dirt that Hedley is able to make yield flowers.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show? And is there something specific that you think a DC audience will particularly respond to?
I’m actually invested in an audience’s unprompted response to my interpretation to the work I put forth, as it’s the purest way for me to discern just what (if any) compelling impact there might be. I would never presume to influence an audience’s takeaway response from a story, just as I naturally bristle at someone trying to tell me how I feel and think about a subject. I do, however, feel DC audiences – like those in most American cities – will be able to appreciate the world of the underserved that is most harshly impacted by the oppressive realities of the privileged classes.