How can African Americans achieve success in a country where they still are a minority in numbers and wealth? That’s the intriguing issue posed by Radio Golf, the last play in August Wilson’s twentieth century cycle. Its local premiere receives an outstanding production at Studio Theatre – superbly acted and consistently entertaining even if the work itself is not totally convincing.
Harmond Wilks (Walter Coppage) is a real estate developer who intends to use his newest and biggest project as a platform for a campaign to become Pittsburgh’s first African American mayor. He, his business partner Roosevelt Hicks (Kim Sullivan), and his wife Mame (Deidra LaWan Starnes) prepared to gain power and prestige through the front door, in contrast to Sterling Johnson (Erik Kilpatrick) approach, an entrepreneurial lone construction worker who gets by through the back door in life.
The problem Harmond faces is that his new project (a major apartment complex complete with a Whole Fields, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble) requires the declaration of the poor Hill district as blighted and old neighborhood homes torn down. Legal complications arise over the status of the last remaining home, which is owned by “Elder” Joseph Barlow (Frederick Strother), also known as “Old Joe.”
Another conflict in the play involves the extent to which Harmond is willing to bend to the advice of his driven wife, who is eager to achieve political success, and a business partner who is willing to serve as the minority face for a wealthy investory. As the play develops, Harmond has to consider the legal and moral dimensions of his plans.
Wilson has always achieved his most poetic dialogue and colorful characterizations through his portraits of the dispossessed and Old Joe is a gem. Strother is consistently hilarious as the type of deceptively street smart character that frequently inhabits Wilson’s work.
The entire cast handles Wilson’s lyrical writing with aplomb. The crisp conversations crackle with humor. That dialogue and the relatively contemporary setting of the work (a 1997 Pittsburgh office) make Radio Golf among the most accessible and enjoyable of Wilson’s works, even if not as artistically accomplished as his finest dramas.
As the story progresses, though, the characterizations are undercut by Wilson’s need to pose political and intellectual questions. Harmond is a charming and affable would-be politician whose recollection of how some women were put off by his career intensity seems artificial. It is hard to understand how the memories of his family history and the events of the play would drive him to a mid-life crisis that puts his future at risk.
Most of the characters increasingly seem more like vehicles for Wilson’s ideas than well-rounded individuals. Nonetheless, Kilpatrick helps his character overcome the one-man Greek chorus role he often serves and Sullivan’s golf-loving businessman makes a more sympathetic case for his accommodating approach than might be expected. Ms. Starnes also adds a touching personal dimension to her portrait of an attractive professional woman.
Wilson completed this play shortly before his death in 2005. At the end of his cycle, Wilson refused to let America off the hook for its lack of sufficient progress on racial equality. Ever the social antagonist, Radio Golf offers the dilemma that an African American man can either sell out to powerful interests or face defeat. Yet as Studio Theatre’s program points out, several African American men had been elected big city mayors prior to the play’s setting. The story might have been even more interesting if Wilson had been able to contemplate a cool and articulate African American leader who could achieve success while still drawing upon his past. That’s a story that currently fascinates a nation.
by August Wilson
directed by Ron Himes
produced by Studio Theatre
reviewed by Steven McKnight
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
Running Time: 2:25 (one intermission).