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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Radio Golf: Conclusion of August Wilson's Epic Cycle Points Boldly to the Future

Harry Lennix and James A. Williams
August Wilson's complete ten-play cycle depicting the lives of African-Americans in each decade of the twentieth century is an exceptionally significant accomplishment. As long as theatre maintains a meaningful role in our culture and society, August Wilson's plays will endure and remain influential.

Wilson created his cycle of inter-related plays (all but one occur in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born) over a period of twenty-five years. The plays were not written in chronological order. Some are essentially realistic, while others are poetic and incorporate myth and magic.

Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf, set respectively in the first and last decades of the last century, are the ninth and tenth plays in the cycle. Gem of the Ocean is phantasmagoric and poetic whereas Gulf Radio has an essentially realistic tone. However, Radio Golf makes significant reference to Gem of the Ocean as Wilson has employed these two plays to give shape and cohesion, a beginning and an ending, to his remarkable cycle. Still, each of the ten plays can stand alone. It does not matter with which play a theatergoer enters into the cycle, or in what order he continues through it, because in August Wilson's world the past illuminates the future and the future illuminates the past.

Set in 1997, Radio Golf concerns Harmond Wilks, the scion of a successful real estate broker. Wilks is partnered with his old buddy, Roosevelt Hicks, in a Hill District redevelop.m.ent project to "restore" the blighted neighborhood by building an extremely large, mixed use apartment and retail complex. Wilks' leadership in community develop.m.ent has so raised his profile and credibility that he is certain to win the support of the Democratic Party and be elected Pittsburgh mayoral in the upcoming elections. His political status will guarantee the support necessary for legislation needed to enable the Federal funding upon which the develop.m.ent is dependent. Hicks, a hustling and sweaty bank executive, has extended himself to the limit in order to cover his financial obligation. Hicks also is involved in a scheme to front for a rich, white businessman's purchase of a radio station. This will enable the businessman to purchase the station below its true market value as the seller will receive a major tax break for selling it to a minority buyer.

Radio Golf gets its title from Hicks' love of golf and his belief that golf lessons for minority youth will teach them the skills needed to succeed in life. After Hicks and his silent backer acquire the radio station, Hicks broadcasts golf tips under the rubric, "Radio GOlf." Surprisingly enough, the tip that we hear Hicks give does make sense as a life lesson. He recounts a (fictional) story of a golfer who was four strokes in the lead and one shot away from winning the Masters. Rather than playing it safe, the golfer chose an iron for distance rather than control, and proceeded to land the ball in a water hazard and ended up losing the tournament (" ... never forget that you're always one stroke from disaster.").

Wilks' potential water hazard is the house at 1839 Wylie. It is from this house that the legendary and beloved Aunt Ester dispensed wisdom and healing to the denizens of the Hill District (Gem of the Ocean). The house and its property are located on the site on which the redevelop.m.ent project is planned. The house had been sold to Wilks' real estate firm for nonpayment of taxes, but the sale was illegal because proper notice had not been posted. Thus, it is rightly the property of Joseph Barlow, an itinerant worker (one of two present who have insights which escape his financial and social betters) who is fixing the house for occupation by his daughter. It becomes Wilks' goal to preserve the building both in fairness to Barrow and for its emotional and historic meaning to the community. In striving to do so, Wilks places both his own future and that of his practical (one might say, more realistic) wife, Mame.

Kenny Leon has wisely directed his actors to play in a brisk, straightforward manner, emphasizing the dominant realistic elements of the play. There is rich detail in each performance. However, the tone of Leon's direction does not sufficiently emphasize the complexity of the issues raised here. While it is satisfying to root for the good guy, there is subtlety present here. Our good guy does not realize that he has put himself out on a precarious limb. It is cut off before he can decide whether or not to climb back down. Wilks responds most admirably. However, it should be noted that there are cogent, convincing arguments made for those who oppose him. Is it not better to compromise than to lose out altogether? I think that the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. In the circumstances that are being dealt with here, ... well, see Radio Golf and decide for yourself.

Early in the play, Harry Lennix shows us a smooth and confident, likeable on the surface, but blithe and shallow Harmond Wilks. As Wilks is exposed more and more to the words and actions of those now around him, Lennix wins our hearts as he subtly conveys Wilks' growing concern and deepening understanding of the complexity of the issues which he will have to face. Lennix here bears a resemblance to Barack Obama. This draws attention to the fact that issues which have been raised about Obama are reflected in the play.

James A. Williams brings a strong presence and amusing smarminess to the role of Roosevelt Hicks. His performance is skilled and entertaining. However, I think that it would better illuminate the play if Williams and his director Kenny Leon would make Hicks more sympathetic in the early going. There is a basis for this in the text. It would then be more chillingly effective when, driven by his fear of financial ruin, Hicks betrays Wilks.

Tonya Pinkins nicely retains our sympathy as Wilks' wife Mame, even though Mame does not support her husband's righteous or, from her standpoint, self righteous decision. Anthony Chisholm is a righteous tower of strength without ever being even remotely insufferable as Joseph Barlow, Wilks' self-appointed conscience. John Earl Jelks is delightful as house painter and jack of all trades Sterling Johnson. My take is that Johnson is a clever, street smart, over the top guy who will always be out there to try to keep the leadership honest.

David Gallo's richly detailed setting of the storefront office of the redevelop.m.ent corporation surrounded by impressionistic ruin is very evocative, and it is probably too literal minded of me to miss at least a hint of the impressive ceiling detail to which reference is made.

It is a given, both implicit and explicit, that the racism, exploitation and indifference of European Americans are the overriding factors in determining the precarious position of African-Americans. However, August Wilson is most concerned about the responsibility of African-Americans to themselves, as well as the best strategies for African-Americans to overcome the barriers which others place on them. And, in his final play, Wilson makes it clear that joining the exploiters and sharing the perks of being one of them is the wrong way to go. Neither is Wilson particularly optimistic about the trends which he records in his final play. However, his final message to the African-American community is to apply the war paint, adapt an affirmative and communal attitude, and soldier on.

As in Jitney, Wilson does not absolve those caught up in crime and poverty from their share of the blame. However, blame is not the name of Wilson's game. Taking responsibility is. And taking responsibility is what August Wilson is challenging the African-American community to do. As with Jitney, the first produced play of the Pittsburgh cycle, August Wilson is specifically challenging African-Americans to participate in the redemption and empowerment of their own community. It seems that as social and economic progress gives African-Americans greater opportunities and wider choices, the issues facing them are ever more baffling and complex.

Radio Golf is for me one of August Wilson's most compelling plays. It is a major American play which clearly and forthrightly confronts issues which will only increase in importance until that sadly far away day when race ceases to be a meaningful issue in our society.

Although he died in October, 2005, we are fortunate that through his compassionate and loving plays, August Wilson will continue to provide Americans with signposts as we continue our difficult journey to achieve justice and harmony for all our people in the new century.

This production of Radio Golf begins previews on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on April 20, 2007.

Radio Golf continues performances (Eves.: Wed,/Thurs./Sun. 7:30 p.m.; Fri./Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats.: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. —No Eve. Perf. 4/8) through April 8, 2007 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online:

Radio Golf by August Wilson; directed by Kenny Leon

Mame Wilks…………………Tonya Pinkins
Harmond Wilks………………Harry Lennix
Roosevelt Hicks………...James A. Williams
Sterling Johnson…………...John Earl Jelks
Elder Joseph Barlow….Anthony Chisholm

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- Bob Rendell

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