The good news is theatre legend Rhodessa Jones is back in town. The very good news is that she’s performing the part of Ruby in August Wilson’s King Hedley II at Penumbra Theatre Company. The good news is theatre legend Rhodessa Jones is back in town. The very good news is that she’s performing the part of Ruby in August Wilson’s King Hedley II at Penumbra Theatre Company.
Jones is well known around these quarters for her 1993 tour de force appearance at Penumbra in Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women. Written by Jones, it’s a play culled from bittersweet humor and stark drama, masterfully scripted to unveil the rich humanity and tragic plight of women who languish behind prison bars. Portraying about a half-dozen fully realized characters, the author-actor created an award-winning hallmark that raised the bar for solo stage-shows, most of which amount to terminally pretentious, woefully pedestrian self-indulgence.
Co-artistic director of San Francisco’s acclaimed Performance Company Cultural Odyssey, Jones is founder-director of the acclaimed Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, a performance workshop designed to achieve personal and social transformation for incarcerated women. Among other accomplishments, the project has been featured at Rutgers University and won a Bay Area Critics Circle Special Award. A San Francisco Foundation Community Leadership Award commended Jones for developing the Medea Project as an intersection of art, politics, and social rehabilitation. She is acknowledged for such work by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and Office of the District Attorney as well as community centers. This May, she was awarded a Non-Profit Arts Excellence Award by the San Francisco Business Arts Council. Last year, she received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the California Arts Council as well as the Otto Rene Castillo Award for Political Theater. Throughout the spring and fall she toured her new work, Hot Flashes, Power Surges, and Private Summers. It successfully ran at such venues as Sushi Gallery (San Diego), Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Yale Repertory Theatre. While in residence at Yale University, Jones led workshops and conducted Master Classes for MFA students, lectured at the African American Cultural Center and was honored with a Master’s Tea hosted by Faculty of the Yale School of Drama.
Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy, who takes the helm for King Hedley II, relates that Jones was a must-have for this production. “It’s amazing when she reads some lines,” he say. “There’s an [authority] that experience in life has inscribed on her. One of the things I wanted to see, ever since I watched this show move around the country, is a woman of real substance [who isn’t] afraid of anything. When I first saw the play I said, Rhodessa Jones gotta play that role. [She’s] just a fabulous actress.”
The admiration is mutual, as Jones is delighted to have been called on. She recalls, “Lou said, Read the script, and, if you like Ruby, it’s yours.” God bless [him]. He’s a great director for ensemble theatre.” Speaking of which, she is quick to give credit to her co-workers in the show, a roster of strongly proven talents which features film and television and star Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, Oz). She says of Hudson, “Working with Ernie, he’s divine. He’s a wonderful actor in that he gives a lot. He’s very generous. I’ve learned a lot from everybody. David Alan Anderson has been very supportive. We have a fabulous cast. It has been awesome. It’s been incredibly enriching and incredibly challenging.”
With Hudson, Jones and company member Anderson are Penumbra veterans Lester Purry, Tonia Jackson and James Craven.
King Hedley II is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during 1985 on a grim social landscape of urban devastation brought by then-President Ronald Reagan’s ruthless policy of slash-and-burn economics. Jobs are hard to come by. Violence is an everyday fact of life. Suffice to say one confronts a reality far removed from the fiction of picture-postcard Americana. This,