It’s a terrific piece of playwriting, which doesn’t lose any of its effectiveness when you realize, after the fact, that such a dialogue would never actually take place between these two characters in this setting. It isn’t that Radio Golf doesn’t have an interesting plot; it’s just that the plot doesn’t naturally lend itself to all of the ruminations and dialogues in which its characters engage. At times, the lighting (by Donald Holder) seems to put the rest of the stage in a half-light, while a single character goes off on a poignant monologue, as though the play has put itself on hold for a momentary morsel of really special writing.
The story centers on Harmond Wilks, a successful developer who is planning a sizeable redevelopment project in a blighted area of Pittsburgh, and who, moreover, has a good shot at becoming Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. Wilson establishes Wilks’s character early in the play. He’s a mover and shaker, the type of guy who commands respect and can get stuff done. But he’s also the sort of candidate you really want to vote for; Wilks is principled, honorable, and always willing to see the good in people. The play opens with him setting up camp in his redevelopment office, an old storefront cheaply yet functionally furnished. But Wilks immediately focuses on the hand-tooled detail on the ceiling - revealing his respect for the past, the value he places on hard work, and his general willingness to look beyond the superficial before making a judgment. He’s the most fully developed character in the play, and Rocky Carroll easily inhabits him (although, at the performance reviewed, he tripped over more than his fair share of lines).
The rest of the play is populated by four other characters who alternately support and challenge Wilks. James A. Williams plays Roosevelt Hicks, Wilks’s friend and partner in the redevelopment project. Where Wilks is the optimist, Hicks is the realist. His arrival at the storefront office isn’t marked by any appreciation of the architectural details; he’s more worried that someone is going to steal his hubcaps. Hicks didn’t have as privileged an upbringing as Wilks, and Williams reveals this in Hicks’ rough edges. Denise Burse is Wilks’ wife, Mame. Burse presents Mame as calculating; her eyes are always on the prize of her husband becoming mayor, and she crisply dismisses anything that won’t support that goal. At one point, Wilks describes Mame as being “strong and soft at the same time,” but it’s hard to believe - we’ve never seen her softer side.
The catalysts for all of Wilson’s dialogue about class and success are two characters who keep dropping by the redevelopment office. One is Elder Joseph Barlow, who lost his house (Aunt Ester’s house, from Wilson’s earlier plays) for failure to pay back taxes, but refuses to leave the house - which is slated to be demolished for the redevelopment project. Anthony Chisholm plays Barlow quite literally as the gruff voice of the past - indeed, the main complaint about his performance is that he makes Barlow’s voice so weak and scratchy, he is sometimes unintelligible. The other frequent visitor is John Earl Jelks as Sterling Johnson, an undereducated ex-con who initially enters looking for work. Wilson writes Johnson in the mold of one of Shakespeare’s Fools - he seems to be saying something simple, but he’s really engaging in a bit of Socratic dialogue and is just about to turn simplicity into wisdom. Jelks plays the part perfectly, reeling in the audience as well as whomever he is arguing with. He gets a laugh when Johnson says that he robbed a bank to see what it feels like to have money in his pocket, but when he goes on to say what it does feel like, you realize you’re in the presence of a character who has an exceptional ability to cut through all the bull and see the world as it actually is.
To be sure, Radio Golf presents many large and small plot complications: Will Barlow finally let go of the house? Will the redevelopment project obtain the necessary federal funding? Will the newspaper print Wilks’ speech if he refuses their request to excise a controversial passage? Is the white businessman with a history of shady dealings taking advantage of Hicks when he offers to acquire a radio station with him? But Radio Golf isn’t really about any of that. Nor is it exclusively about the African-American experience in the 1990s. It’s about what happens when idealism, realism, past, future, naivete, and wisdom collide, and what happens to a good man caught in the middle.
Radio Golf runs at the Mark Taper Forum through September 18, 2005. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County Mark Taper Forum - Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director; Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director - presents August Wilson’s Radio Golf. Directed by Kenny Leon. Scenic Design by David Gallo; Costume Design by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Jon Gottlieb. Original Music Composed and ARranged by Kathryn Bostic. Dramaturg Todd Kreidler. Casting by Any Lieberman, CSA, and Harriet Bass; Production Stage Managers Narda E. Alcorn, Mary K Klinger; Assistant Stage Manager Marion Friedman.