King Hedley II
is the ninth play in the ten-play Pittsburg Cycle
by August Wilson. It was first performed on Broadway in 2001 and revived in 2007. The play was nominated for a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, six Tony Awards, and five Drama Desk Awards. However, the only awards went to Viola Davis, who won both the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Featured Actress.
King Hedley, released from prison before the start of the play, is trying to make a living so he can support his mother, Ruby, and wife, Tonya. King and his friend Mister have begun to make money selling refrigerators, which Ruby believes are stolen property. King maintains that he doesn’t know where the refrigerators come from. The man who hired him and Mister provides them with the refrigerators and King doesn’t ask questions. Ruby is worried that the police will arrest him, but King believes the authorities have better things to do.
Mister arrives on his way to work. King and Mister know each other from prison and reminisce about their time behind bars. Then, Mister warns King that Pernell’s cousin is in town and wants revenge for King’s murder of Pernell. King does not think he is really in danger.
Tonya comes out of the house with the news that Ruby’s ex-boyfriend, Elmore, wants to see Ruby to prove that he has turned over a new leaf; however, Ruby doesn’t think Elmore is capable of change.
Two days later, Mister comes to talk to King about money. The two men are saving their earnings from the refrigerator sales to open a video business together. They both wish that they could use the money for furniture and other things they need around the house but know that the money must stay where it is. However, they hatch a plan to rob a local jewelry store to get the money they need.
Mister is annoyed that his girlfriend Deanna’s mother threatens him whenever she sees them together, but King tells him that mothers have a duty to protect their children. Ruby comes out of the house, just in time to see Elmore arriving. Elmore is looking for somewhere to stay since he is passing through on the way to Cleveland. Before he can talk with Ruby, an upset Tonya arrives.
Tonya is angry because she has been unable to get an abortion. Pregnant with King’s child, she does not want to have it as she doubts that King can avoid breaking the law; she doesn’t want to be saddled with another child who has few prospects as a poor black person.
The next day, Ruby and Elmore catch up. It is revealed that Leroy is actually King’s father, not King Hedley I as Ruby has always led her son to believe. Elmore dated Ruby before King I did, until he was sent to prison for murdering another of Ruby’s suitors. In spite of this, Ruby has always been drawn to Elmore, even though she feels guilty about it.
Money is very tight in Ruby’s house. King has been trying to get a good job but has so far been unable to because he is a black man with a criminal record. He sees no other option except to rob the jewelry store with Mister. Planning the robbery fills them with swaggering confidence as they exaggerate the danger they will be in.
The robbery takes place offstage. King and Mister run into the house carrying the money under their coats. When they count their take, they realize it is much smaller than they were hoping for. Elmore comes in, and Mister leaves with the money. King and Elmore talk about the violent crimes they have committed in their lives and how these acts have changed them.
Tonya arrives and King tries to give her money. However, rightfully guessing that the money was obtained illegally, Tonya won’t accept it. Shaken, King goes to visit the grave of his ex-girlfriend Neesi. While there, he discovers Pernell’s grave and is shocked to learn that Pernell was a father. When he gets home, he asks Tonya again to keep her baby so that he can have a chance to be a father. Tonya tells him that he must stop stealing, but King cannot promise this.
Elmore and Ruby reveal that they are going to be married. King, who has since learned that Elmore murdered his real father, Leroy, is furious about the news. He challenges Elmore to a craps game, and begins to cheat, trying to bait Elmore into a fight that will kill one of them. They pull guns on each other but King refuses to fire. Ruby gets her own gun to defend King but accidentally shoots her son, killing him.