August Wilson, who died in 2005, was a preeminent American playwright. Wilson firmly established himself with a cycle of 10 plays tracing the African-American experience in the 20th century. Radio Golf, the last play in the series, recently got a vigorous production at the Anthony Bean Community Theater. The play deals with the opportunities that opened up for blacks in the marketplace and the political world.
Wilson's previous plays showed the descendants of slaves struggling in a prejudiced world, but he rarely trotted out a white oppressor like Simon Legree from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Radio Golf is no exception. There is an offstage white businessman manipulating middle-class blacks, but the central conflicts are between blacks of different social and economic outlooks.
The play begins in the office of Bedford Hills Redevelopment in the Hill district of Pittsburgh in the late '90s. This is the home base of a company run by Harmond Wilks (Will Williams) and his friend Roosevelt Hicks (Donald Lewis Jr.). Also on the scene is Wilks' wife Mame (Gwendolyne Foxworth), whose central interest is Wilks' campaign to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh.
There are hidden symbolic layers to the drama, and I can't nail them all down with precision. Suffice it to say, the Hill district is an African-American neighborhood and was Wilson's ongoing focus. A house in the Hill district " that Wilks now owns and plans to demolish " once belonged to the legendary Aunt Ester, who was a slave. She's an iconic memory of the slave past. In a sense, Wilks' crime is that he's destroying a link to the slave past and thus memory as well.
But can progress be a crime? How can taking advantage of the so-called American dream be wrong?
Therein lies the tale. At times the details are murky, but the conflicts are clear and make for good theater. There's delightful comic dialogue, though most of it is reserved for a couple of poor men from the neighborhood who are still in touch with the past.
The play deals with deals. Wilks and Hicks were able to buy the late Aunt Ester's home from the city because of unpaid property taxes. Now they need money to carry out their grand redevelopment scheme. In order to get federal help, they want the city council to declare the neighborhood blighted. Meanwhile, Mame, who has little interest in the real estate deal, wants her husband to focus on his election campaign. She's working hard for him and has postponed responding to an offer from the governor to handle his press relations.
In these complications, we see some of the underside of racial progress. We also get a glimmer of understanding about the surreal title of the play. After all, who was not surprised and exhilarated to see Tiger Woods zoom to the top of the field in the ultimate white man's game? And who has not heard stories about cronyism on the links? Hicks is thrilled to play golf, and Wilks has a set of clubs as well. They aspire to upper-middle-class if not flat-out upper-class life. They want all the benefits of wealth and power.
The radio station of the title concerns a deal the white tycoon offers Hicks. They will become partners and buy a station. The tycoon will take the lion's share of ownership, but he will be a silent partner. Hicks will bring minority interest to the deal. He'll be a 'black face" " the nod to minstrel-show jargon is Wilson at his sardonic best.
The counterbalance to this upward mobility comes from two enigmatic characters: 'Old Joe" Barlow (Harold X. Evans) and Sterling Johnson (Lionel J. Jackson). Barlow pirouettes shakily into the real estate office, announcing, 'I'm looking for some Christian people." Barlow is painting Aunt Ester's house, and he says he owns it. Johnson takes to helping him, partly it seems out of disgust with the redevelopment team, whom he refers to derogatorily as 'negroes." He even puts war paint on his face and gives a screech of defiance. Generally, however, the scenes that really grab you show the characters struggling with their feelings for each other.
A tip of the hat goes to director Anthony Bean, who gathered a remarkable cast and elicited keen performances in this critique of social and economic progress.
- Roosevelt Hicks (Donald Lewis Jr., left), Harmond Wilks (Will Williams) and Mame (Gwendolyne Foxworth) seek professional advancement in ways that would change the character of a historic neighborhood in Radio Golf.