Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Radio Golf
Goodman Theatre

Anthony Chisholm
In spite of its 1997 setting, Radio Golf, the last of August Wilson's cycle of ten plays chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, is a companion piece of sorts to Gem of the Ocean. Although Gem was the ninth to be written, it's set in the first decade of the century, and together with Radio Golf, it nicely bookends the cycle. Two of Radio Golf's characters are direct descendants of figures in Gem, and these family lines represent two opposing aspects of African-American experience.

Harmond Wilks (Hassan El-Amin), a real estate developer about to run for Mayor of Pittsburgh, is the grandson of Gem's Caesar Wilks, the local Constable who succeeded in the early decades after slavery. Caesar Wilks first made money through entrepreneurism and later by policing his fellow blacks. Caesar's success, coming largely from his willingness to work against the interests of less enterprising or simply less lucky African-American brothers, is mirrored by the success of his grandson Harmond, who by 1997 has earned a comfortable living playing within the system ruled by white society. Harmond faces a moral crisis when he learns that his urban redevelopment project for the Hill District (the setting of most of Wilson's plays) will be causing the demolition of a house with major significance for the community —the home of the late Aunt Ester, the allegedly 300+ year-old woman who was a spiritual adviser to blacks of the Hill District through its history. Harmond may not even fully realize the significance of the home at 1839 Wylie —he speaks only of the home's tarnished but timeless beauty and fine craftsmanship —but he knows it rightfully belongs to Elder Joseph Barlow, son of Gem of the Ocean's Citizen Barlow and Black Mary. Upon his realization that the property was acquired illegally for the redevelopment group, Harmond Wilks is faced with the choice of attempting to save the house and return it to the care of Joe Barlow or do the politically and economically expedient thing and proceed with the house's demolition.

The dichotomy between the African-Americans who are able to get a piece of the American dream and those who can't is illustrated almost diagrammatically through Wilson's richly drawn (and in this production, fully realized) characters. Among the "haves" is Roosevelt Hicks, an upwardly mobile executive with Pittsburgh's Mellon Bank who is a partner with Harmond in the redevelopment project and part owner of a radio station co-owned by a white partner who needs minority participation to get a tax break. Hicks and Wilks are both enthusiasts of that whitest of sports, golf (Tiger Woods notwithstanding), and "Radio Golf" is the name of a show Hicks hosts on the station. Hicks' disdain for poor blacks, whom he sees as less ambitious and less trustworthy than he is, is played in venomously satiric tone by James A. Williams. Harmond's wife Mame is a public relations professional seeking a job on the governor's staff. Michole Briana White is totally convincing and touching as Mame, turning an act two speech that might have been little more than standard "stand-by-your-man" rhetoric into a real moment.

The "have nots" have the richer roles, though. Elder (Old Joe) Barlow is played by the magnificent Anthony Chisholm as a deceptively wise old man, who delivers some of the play's better nuggets of philosophy and observation, such as telling Harmond that a black man can't become mayor, because the mayor has "too many keys," and that even if he does win, "they ain't gonna let you have that many keys." Also representing the less fortunate blacks is Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), an ex-con and high school classmate of Harmond's who is much smarter than people might believe him to be.

Ultimately, the fate of Aunt Ester's house rests more on a question or economic power than race, and this observation gives Radio Golf resonance for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds.

In the middle of this perfectly diagrammed conflict, Harmond Wilks initially seems dually attracted to success and idealism. The character is initially a bit bland, but as the conflict is established and it becomes clear that Wilks will be unable to follow both principle and profit, El-Amin gives Harmond Wilks a gradual and powerful transformation into a man in crisis.

The haves and have nots are shown to have evolved from the same roots. In the play, the Wilkses and the Barlows have long histories in the Hill District, and Johnson and Wilks attended the same school, while in history they all share the legacy of slavery. The two "teams" effectively debate the choices and contradictions in the African-American struggle for equality, with Wilks alternating sides as the story progresses. Director Kenny Leon has given the piece a realistic, entertaining and gripping interpretation. Its humor and hopefulness make it a highly accessible as well as thought-provoking play.

David Gallo's set communicates a good deal of the play's themes. It's a cutaway of an old retail building on the hill in which candidate Wilks has set up campaign headquarters. Wilks' office is flanked by the remnants of a former barbershop on stage right and by a former diner on stage left, giving a richly detailed picture of the sad decline of the Hill District community, and mourning two businesses that must have been among its vital gathering spots. Wilks' and Hicks' new Bedford Hills development will bring retailing back to the Hill, but the retailers will be Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods and Starbucks rather than the independent businesses of old. Whether Aunt Ester's house on Wylie Avenue is demolished or not, and even if economically successful blacks like Roosevelt and Mame return to the redeveloped Hill, it seems the Hill District community of the 20th century will be gone as these characters enter the 21st.

The play asks if it's enough for African-Americans to achieve a life comfortable enough to permit an indulgence like having your own talk show on your favorite pastime, or if black pioneers in economic affluence have a higher calling. Radio Golf is uncompromising in the questions it raises, but is ultimately hopeful. As Barlow says, "if you live long enough the boat will turn around. Big boats turn slow but they turn nonetheless."

Radio Golf has been extended through February 25, 2007, in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets are $20 to $68 and may be purchased online at or at the Goodman Theatre Box Office, or charged by phoning 312-443-3800.

Photo: Eric Antoniou

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