Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Playwright August Wilson died in 2005, before the rise to prominence of Barack Obama, but his final play, Radio Golf, considers the conflicting responsibilities of an African-American politician to his various constituencies. Washington's Studio Theatre has picked up on the parallels to current events, advertising the production with a photo of Harmond Wilks (Walter Coppage) in the iconic two-tone style of the famous Obama poster.
Wilks is a member of the African-American bourgeoisie, a Cornell graduate and real-estate developer determined (the year is 1997) to reclaim Pittsburgh's Hill District, the historically black neighborhood that had slipped into a severe decline. After rebranding the neighborhood as "Bedford Hills" and building a multi-purpose complexto include apartments, a health center, a Starbucks, a Whole Foods and a Barnes & NobleWilks aims to become the city's first African-American mayor. He has strong support from his wife Mame (Deidra LaWan Starnes), ambitious in her own right, and his business partner Roosevelt Hicks (Kim Sullivan), a slick bank vice president who loves golf and idolizes Tiger Woods.
The question on the Hill, however, is whether Wilks would be "the mayor for white folks or the mayor for black folks." When he suggests that he would be the mayor for everyone, construction worker Sterling (Erik Kilpatrick) says that isn't a good enough answer. Then the culture clash becomes more personal: "Elder" Joseph Barlow (Frederick Strother), a garrulous old man, claims that he owns an abandoned house in the middle of the development area and refuses Wilks' offer of payment. (This is a case where familiarity with Wilson's works adds a dimension to the drama. Barlow and Wilks, and the unseen house, have roots that date back to the Hill District in 1904 and Gem of the Ocean, the earliest play in chronological order but written just before Radio Golf.)
Coppage's performance is calm but not boring; Wilks clearly has contradictions and compromises roiling beneath the surface, but has learned how to hide most external traces of conflict. Strother is the opposite, delightfully voluble as he spins out the playwright's lyrical flights. Starnes also stands out as a woman who originally seems remote (she makes her first appearance in a fastidious white suit, painfully aware of the dust and grime surrounding her) but is capable of deep emotion.
Interestingly, the theater is located in the heart of a formerly blighted Washington neighborhood that has become a popular residential area, with businesses including Whole Foods and Starbucks. However, real-estate developers did not precipitate this change; it began with cultural pioneers such as Studio.