A lot of stuff happens in this 8th play in the August Wilson American Century Cycle, King Hedley II. Lots of events. But none of it sticks with me more, however, than the death of Aunt Ester, the Hill and Cycle matriarch. We may get around to making a list, but let’s begin with Aunt Ester’s death, a sort of central event around which everything else rotates.
First, let’s be clear. We know Aunt Ester isn’t over 300 years old as stated. We know by this point in our reading that Aunt Esther represents a series of black women, in an unbroken chain, all of whom have provided advice, wisdom, and practical knowledge to folks who sought her assistance, over the years. The year of her birth, 1619, aligns with the first recording of Africans from Angola landing by ship in Jamestown. Some say they arrived as indentured servants, a legal term describing the physical characteristics of a type of contract, duplicated on either end of a piece of paper, then indented and cut into two pieces with a specific pattern for future authentication. Some say they arrived as slaves. I guess it makes a difference to those who for whom it makes a difference, but on the Hill, and in the world that August Wilson has created, it was the birth year of Aunt Ester. What’s most important here is the year not of Aunt Ester’s birth, but of her death, 1985, because it represents, for some reason or reasons we can discuss later, the end of a chain, the end of a continuous personality, present up to this time, in the community. That bodes ill for the Hill and the community.
We get the first signal in the Stool Pigeon soliloquy in Wilson’s Prologue, and we immediately know something is off, out of kilter, because no previous play has had such a prologue. Stool Pigeon says, “Aunt Ester knows. But the path to her house is all grown over with weeds, you can’t hardly find the door no more.” Then, early, in Scene 1, Stool Pigeon makes the mournful announcement, “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamp down low! We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!”
King, in Scene 2, after asking Stool Pigeon if he can see King’s halo, points to a gold key ring that Aunt Ester gave him when he used to keep her grass cut. Note: a key ring, not a key. King’s obsession with people seeing his halo (he asks three times throughout the play, to Mister, to Stool Pigeon and to Elmore) might suggest King’s awareness at some level of consciousness that he has been sanctified or chosen for a mission.
On the night of Aunt Ester’s passing, a strong wind blew through the neighborhood and all the lights went out for a few moments. Some of the neighbors mourn for three days (modern religion, Catholicism) but some mourn until she is buried (African traditional faith). Stool Pigeon, aka Canewell in Seven Guitars, now the neighborhood historian, mystic and archivist, has a variety of rationalizations regarding events surrounding Aunt Ester’s passing, as do Mister (Red Carter’s son) and King (Hedley’s son).Aunt Ester’s cat dies and Stool Pigeon buries her in the yard near the garden where King is trying to grow flowers. Stool Pigeon decides to get a goat or a fatted calf to pour its blood on the cat’s grave, remarking that Aunt Ester can come back if the cat has any of its nine lives left.
Fast forward to the end of the play. Let’s unpack the action. Elmore, Mister and King are gambling with dice. King accuses Elmore of cheating and kicks Elmore (who killed his true father, Leroy, years ago, though he just learned that from Elmore). Elmore tried to get up, but by this time, King has a machete to Elmore’s throat. King is unable to kill Elmore, and sticks the machete into the ground. Elmore draws a gun on King and Ruby runs into the house. Elmore lowers the gun and fires it into the ground (just like King stuck the machete into the ground). Hearing the gunfire and having last seen Elmore pointing the gun at King, Ruby calls out Elmore’s name. Ruby enters the yard firing the Derringer she got from Mister earlier thinking she is firing at Elmore. The bullet hits King in the neck, instantly killing him. King’s blood flows onto the ground near the grave of Aunt Ester’s buried cat. Stool Pigeon delivers his final monologue, and as the lights go down, the meow of a cat is heard. King’s spilled blood, already annointed, has revived the cat, by extension, which means there is hope for the resurrection and continuation of Aunt Ester.
postscript. Notes from last session’s King Hedley II.
King Hedley II’s playlist is pretty sparse. But noteworthy.