nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 11, 2007
Radio Golf completes the late August Wilson's cycle of ten plays about the African American experience in the 20th century. It's the last one he wrote and also the last one chronologically, taking place in 1997 in a Pittsburgh not so different from any other big American city of the present day. On its own, the play is powerful, moving, and timely. Taken in tandem with the rest of Wilson's work, it's the climax of an extraordinary literary/dramatic undertaking: will anything in American theatre of the past 25 years surpass these eloquent, poetic pleas for justice, understanding, and pride?
Harmond Wilks, a very successful real estate developer, is planning a run for Mayor of Pittsburgh. The kickoff event is going to be the groundbreaking of a new inner-city housing/shopping complex, featuring luxury apartments, a Starbucks, a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and a Whole Foods. The complex is being developed by Wilks and his partner, the equally ambitious and upwardly mobile Roosevelt Hicks. The campaign and the groundbreaking are being managed by Mame, Harmond's wife, a public relations professional who is also courting the Governor for a job in his office. All that's needed is a declaration from the feds that the neighborhood is "blighted," and the development—and Harmond's bid for office—seem assured.
The neighborhood is, of course, the Hill District, site of just about all of Wilson's plays. In fact, one of the old buildings slated for demolition is 1839 Wylie Avenue, which, if you know Seven Guitars or Two Trains Running or King Hedley II or Gem of the Ocean, is Aunt Ester's house. (Aunt Ester, reputed to be more than 300 years old when we last heard about her, was the great matriarch and healer of the black community throughout Wilson's saga; if you're familiar with the plays, then just knowing that Aunt Ester's house is about to be torn down is really all you need to know about Radio Golf.)
Harmond's plans go awry when a man named Elder Joseph Barlow is discovered painting the front door of the old abandoned house at 1839 Wylie. He claims that the house is his, and he's turned up (after at least five years of being who-knows-where) to get it ready for his daughter to occupy. Another man, Sterling Johnson, is hired by Barlow to help with the painting. Both men, as it turns out, are connected to Harmond and his history in ways he can't imagine but needs to become aware of.
Radio Golf has, as its stakes, nothing less than the soul of Harmond Wilks. In a way, it's almost an existential drama: will he do what's advantageous for himself, or will he do what's right? This play, like all of Wilson's remarkable oeuvre, is dense with the poetry, music, and trauma of life. It's about the past and the future and figuring out how properly and proudly to stand between the two. It's about assimilation and progress and their very real, very tragic costs. (Harmond notes, in one breath, that today we have Oprah and other black superstar entrepreneurs but we also have 24 million African Americans living in poverty.)
Radio Golf is about the two men whose pictures—admiring and larger-than-life—grace a huge bulletin board at the rear of the stage. One is Tiger Woods. The other is Martin Luther King, Jr. Which points the way?
Kenny Leon's production is splendid, featuring a uniformly excellent cast of five who bring Wilson's oh-so-human characters to vivid life. Perhaps none is more vital than Tonya Pinkins, who plays Mame (a relatively small role) with a life force that's interestingly absent from the male characters. Harry Lennix starts out low-key as Harmond but finds some fire as his character starts to reclaim his soul; James A. Williams is dead-on as the ambitious, articulate, and ultimately obnoxious Roosevelt. John Earl Jelks is wily and wise as Sterling. Anthony Chisholm is the play's solid heart and anchor as Barlow.
Near the climax of Radio Golf's explosive second act, Roosevelt reads to Harmond and Mame from Barlow's rap sheet. It's a mile long, with offenses going back to the late 1930s; it makes it sound as if he's a common criminal. But it's Wilson's particular strength that no one he writes about is either simply criminal or common; as Roosevelt enumerated the various felonies and misdemeanors for which Barlow had been charged over the years, ghosts from Wilson's earlier plays—the struggling jazz musicians of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Seven Guitars, the numbers runner from Two Trains Running—echoed in my consciousness and reminded me that for too much of the past hundred years a man like Barlow could be arrested by white men merely for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. History resonates in Harmond's blood and in Wilson's stirring words: so worth hearing, and so important never to forget.