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When August Wilson is a Family Affair: Interview with Aaron Jennings

By A Noise Within
April 15, 2024

When Aaron Jennings took on the role of Hedley in August Wilson’s King Hedley II at A Noise Within theatre, he already had a storied personal history with this play, long before he assumed the titular role. Aaron is an actor, from a family of actors, and his mother Juanita Jennings, played the role of Ruby in this play at the Mark Taper Forum in 2001. The play takes place in 1980s Pittsburgh, and follows the journey of Hedley, who has only recently been released from prison, as he struggles to rebuild his life. Halfway through Aaron’s run in this role, he sat down to discuss his memories of the play, his challenges with the play, and what he hopes audience members might resonate with.

What is your first memory of the play King Hedley II

My first memory is being backstage at the Mark Taper. My most vivid memory is myself and the director’s son, playing tag around backstage. We would be going in and out of people’s dressing rooms. I have more faint memories of meeting August, but specifically him being in the audience and listening to rehearsals, still tinkering with the play, as he often did. They were preparing for their Broadway run. I don’t remember much about the play itself because I was maybe 11 years old at the time, or 12. But I did spend a lot of time there during the rehearsal process.

Did this play loom large in your life? Did you see it many times after your mother was in it? 

This is actually one of August Wilson’s least produced plays. The version that my mother did was the only version that I saw, and I don’t have a huge recollection of it. Going into this process, it wasn’t one of my favorite plays from Wilson either. But through the course of this production—with all these wonderful artists, who are also amazing human beings—this play has definitely become one of my favorites. But in many ways, it was a new play to me, you know?

Considering your mother’s personal experience with this text, how have you interacted with your parents throughout this process?  

My mom was very excited at the idea of me playing King. I think a part of her wishes she could play Ruby again, because we would be on stage together. She has run lines with me, but we haven’t really talked story as much. I think both my parents have just allowed for me to have my own process. Sometimes it’s hard when you have parents that are actors and do what you do. There’s a lot of expectations that you put on yourself, so they tread lightly with me. They’re there if I need them, but they also give me space to discover and explore for myself.

What challenges have you encountered with this play?

Aaron Jennings in King Hedley II. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I wasn’t aware how spiritually, emotionally, and mentally trying it was going to be. The feeling of not being enough has come up a lot. I think partly because I want to do it justice, because the connection that I have to it, and because the reverence that I have for August. The character of Hedley is feeling similarly, in certain aspects. Some of that might have just been bleeding into my psyche. But I had just come off a series, a sitcom, and that required a different muscle. So when that finished, I said to the universe, to myself, to God, to my parents, to my family, my girlfriend, my agents, my manager—”I need a challenge. I need to stretch.” With this play, I got exactly what I asked for! Sometimes I felt I couldn’t rise to this challenge. But I’ve had to remind myself that I prayed for this. This is what is necessary for me right now in my life.

What do you want audience members to think about this character and this production? 

There is a lot of darkness in this play. It’s a tragedy. But truthfully, I don’t see Hedley as angry. I see him as someone who’s endured a lot of pain and sadness, and hasn’t been able to fully express himself. He doesn’t feel fully seen. I think there’s a lot of people in the world—black, white, or otherwise—that maybe don’t feel like they’re worthy or they’re enough, and they’re struggling to navigate life. Whether that be because of some form of oppression or circumstance, they just don’t feel they can make it out of their current predicament. I would like for there to be hope when people leave this play. A feeling of worthiness. And I think finally at the end of this play, for Hedley, there is an acceptance and awareness too. There is hope.

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