Reviewed by David Spencer
Well, at least he completed it. No, more than that: completed it and went out on a win. Though Radio Golf had, alas, to debut posthumously, this final entry in August Wilson's cycle of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th Century—one for each decade, this one taking place in the last—is, on its own terms, agreeable and entertaining. And a meaningful contrast with other nine plays.
For in the 90s as dramatized by Wilson, blacks have become more integrated into the fabric of mainstream American society than ever before. So much so that among the questions his play asks is whether certain aspects of black identity risk being sacrificed for a symbiotic relationship with "white" business. Unique among the plays in the America cycle, Radio Golf features main characters who are upwardly mobile. Ultimately their crises are not caused by social and class distinctions with white society but rather with black society—as well as by examining the ethics and conscience that guide how they deal with those not climbing the ladder with them.
The play is set in a storefront real estate redevelopment company office in which plans are being hatched to tear down an old block and replace it with a modern mix of expensive apartments and trendy stores. Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennox) runs the redevelopment company and is thinking about running for mayor. His wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), is supportive, to put it mildly; her own career interests are only boosted by his high profile and clear potential.
Harmond's business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), is also a successful banker. He represents an extreme case of cultural assimilation, albeit ironically, it is he who is most likely to break into afro slang to express extreme feelings. But that doesn't stop him taking up golf as a hobby and even hosting a golf radio show at a station he invests in.
The clash between partners—and spouses—comes when it is brought to their attention that the renovation project will demolish an unofficial "landmark" neighborhood house—once the home of Aunt Esther (the house, and the reference to Esther, are Radio Golf's bookend link to Wilson's play Gem of the Ocean, set in the century's first decade). Aunt Esther was renowned as a comfort for the neighborhood, was reputed to have lived decades over 100, and the elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) is the last living relative to occupy the house. And he doesn't want to sell. Though he may not even have the right to choose anymore.
From a business perspective, there's no debate: the redevelopment will bring big business and millions of dollars to the neighborhood. Problem is, it may take "the neighborhood" out of the neighborhood—which is to say the heart. As Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), a day laborer hired to work on construction and painting, is unafraid to point out.
In an odd way, Radio Golf manages to be both new and old. New in that it examines business morality and ethics from an Afro-American perspective; old in that the issues themselves, or versions of them, are time-honored fodder. Radio Golf, though a gentler play, is, perhaps unintentionally, but just as indisputably, a direct descendent of All My Sons by Arthur Miller—first produced in 1947. Which in turn has its roots in socially conscious plays by Ibsen and others.
On a set by David Gallo, that presents the office almost as if in a protective bubble within the starkly contrasted inner city around it, Kenny Leon has directed a fine cast. Though I feel sorry for Harry Lennox—Wilson has written him as a fairly traditional "romantic lead" with a crisis of conscience to examine, and that makes him straight man to the far more idiosyncratic characters around him, each representing another facet of the issues he must examine from without and within.
But I suppose that's appropriate. It's not such a bad conclusion to a ten play cycle to suggest that a privilege of the mainstream is that any ethnicity can have its dramatic Everyman too...