There is no question that the predominantly African-American Hill District of Pittsburg, PA, has been immortalized for the ages by the late great playwright August Wilson (April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005). Wilson’s evocation of the neighborhood where he was born is pertinent to his formidable canon. How sad and ironic that Wilson would die only days after “Radio Golf,” his final and very fine play would have its world premiere at the Yale Rep, under the direction of Timothy Douglas.
The long-anticipated play’s journey to McCarter Theater was a circuitous one taking almost two years. Following its run in New Haven, “Radio Golf” has had subsequent productions with some cast changes at the Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Rep, Baltimore’s Center Stage, Boston University’s Huntington Theater Company, and at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, all under the direction of Kenny Leon. Leon remains at the helm at McCarter as well as for the Broadway production, which is set to begin performances on Friday, April 20.
Although most of the principal characters Wilson created changed with each play and with each succeeding generation and within the parameters of the 10 plays he wrote that chronicled the African-American experience in the 20th century decade by decade, some re-appeared and some were progeny, others predecessors. The beauty of the canon is that its chronology is second to its vision of extraordinary, if everyday, characters, descendents of slaves, survivors of segregation, and still victims of pervasive racism, who are clearly defined, motivated, and manipulated by the realities of this particular locale in a particular time. Except for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was set in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920s, all of the other nine plays are set within the Hill District.
Set in 1997, “Radio Golf” may not be the most intriguing, most stimulating, or most suspenseful of Wilson’s plays, but it is, nevertheless, a humdinger of a comedy/drama and it admirably holds its own within the canon as the culmination of an era. Aspirers and activists are at the fore, and there is not a dull one among them. Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix) has more on his agenda than simply becoming a mayoral candidate. He has continued the success of his prosperous family’s real estate business. As an ambitious developer, although a rare one with moral fiber, he is formalizing an urban renewal project that will, of necessity, include the demolition of abandoned property as well as an historic home that unsurprisingly stirs up conflicts with his business partner, members of the community, and his wife.
Whether the obliteration of the past is necessary for the creation of the future becomes the play’s major throughline. Lennix gives a sturdy, impassioned performance as a Cornell University graduate suddenly faced with a moral issue and a business dilemma. It is clear from the outset that Wilks, who can’t help but admire the embossed tin ceiling in his provisional office within a dilapidated storefront building, has an innate respect for his heritage, the history and landmarks that may have to be sacrificed in the name of progress.
It is also evident that Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), his business partner, a vice-president in a local bank, is primarily motivated by the money to be made. To further his ambitions, Hicks plays golf with the white men with whom he has aligned himself in various business deals. The play’s title offers a clue to how his interest for the game is materialized. Despite their long-time friendship, it soon becomes apparent that Harmond and Roosevelt have different long-term goals.
As we have come to expect in a Wilson play, there are the disruptive characters who add dimension and complexity to the situation. And each of them is blessed with the gift of highly intensified, vividly articulate gab. Tonya Pinkins, most recently on Broadway in “Caroline, or Change” and Tony Award-winner for “Jelly’s Last Jam,” is splendid as Mame, Wilk’s supportive wife, an attractive and practical woman who is not only Harmond’s hard-working campaign manager but pursing professional aspirations of her own. These may be severely compromised by Harmond’s perhaps too high ethical standards.
John Earl Jelks has an energizing and feisty presence that fuels many scenes, as Sterling Johnson, a surprisingly affable jailbird and burglar hoping to get a job with the construction crew (“I’m my own Union.”), and who will add to his resume neighborhood activist. Sterling is no longer the young hot-headed romantic we first met in “Two Trains Running,” but nevertheless is ready to be confrontational with Roosevelt. He is also a staunch defender of Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), who claims that he is the owner of one of the buildings on the list for leveling. Chisholm, who received warm entrance applause, presumably from those who remember his splendid performances on Broadway as Wolf in “Two Trains Running,” and Two Kings in “Gem of the Ocean,” is once again mesmerizing as the somewhat derelict-looking old man. Called Old Joe, Elder is nobody’s fool and as well he is a cornucopia of neighborhood lore. He keeps the past alive, as he recalls the day and date of multiple events and milestones in the district’s history and the names of the people who made it.
No one who remembers the 285-year-old Aunt Ester from “Gem of the Ocean” will be surprised to learn that it is her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue that is in peril. There is much to savor and ponder in this play as much as there is to make you laugh as the characters find themselves digging deep within themselves to see who they really are and who they have become and to whom they are related. You can be sure that whenever the going gets heavy there is a belly laugh on its way. There are times late in the play, even under Leon’s arresting direction, when patience is required as the plot resolves and the message/lessons to be learned are expectedly over-articulated.
The decaying provisional office, superbly lighted by Donald Holder, has been designed by the essential David Gallo (who designed the Broadway production of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “King Hedley II” as well as the Off-Broadway-produced “Jitney”) to look as if the only provision is that the brilliant evocation of a crumbling building doesn’t fall in on the actors before the end of the play. Visible above the office are the shattered windows and shredding curtains in the abandoned apartments; to the left a barber shop and to the right the corner eatery, the remnants of both summoning up an eerie sense of the past. The set is a testimonial in itself that speaks to us even before the first word of the play is uttered.
For those of us who have had the good fortune to have been engaged by all ten plays, “Radio Golf” brings the ongoing issues of cultural identity, the preservation of heritage, and the complexities of social equality in America to a necessarily conflicted climax. This fine play has an ending that can be seen as an indication of the enormity of the even larger and more multifaceted racial and socio-cultural challenges that are now facing us in the 21st century. For preparing us, we thank you, Mr. August Wilson.
“Radio Golf,” through Sunday, April 8, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.