Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Radio Golf," which playwright August Wilson completed in 2005, completed his epic cycle of 10 plays chronicling black life during each decade of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he died of liver cancer at the age of 60 a few months after its completion and shortly before its New York premiere. TheatreWorks is presenting its regional premiere.
One wonders what plays would be coming from him if he were still alive this year, when Democrat Barack Obama is the first black man to become the presidential nominee of a major American political party. In some ways, though, "Radio Golf" foreshadows that milestone by focusing on the efforts of an energetic young man to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. Wilson was born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where all but one of his cycle of plays is set. "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is the exception.
In "Radio Golf," set in 1997, developer and mayoral aspirant Harmond Wilks (Aldo Billingslea) and his business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Anthony J. Haney), have an ambitious plan to demolish part of the Hill District and redevelop it with apartments, a parking garage and chain businesses like Whole Foods, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. Their company has acquired the property and -- with its being declared blighted by the city -- seems sure of the funding needed to proceed. Harmond plans to announce his candidacy at the groundbreaking.
A potential stumbling block arises when an eccentric old man, Elder Joseph Barlow (Charles Branklyn), claims that one of the houses slated for demolition belongs to him. He says the city never gave him notice that it was auctioning the house for nonpayment of taxes. Harmond investigates and discovers that the city sold the house before giving proper notice, so they have no legal claim to it. After going into the house, which was the home of the recently deceased Aunt Esther, the central figure in "Gem of the Ocean," the first play in Wilson's cycle, Harmond senses how special it is to the neighborhood's history. He also discovers that he has ancestors connected to that house and that he's related to Barlow.
He redesigns the project to leave the house and build around it, but Roosevelt opposes the idea, as does a judge after Harmond seeks an injunction to halt the demolition. Not only that, but Roosevelt has quit his job as a vice president of the local Mellon Bank to work with a rich white businessman of highly questionable ethics. The man buys a local radio station for Roosevelt to manage. Roosevelt, an avid golfer like Harmond, also starts a radio program giving golf tips (hence the play's title). He disregards Harmond's accusations that he has merely become the token black who enables the businessman to claim incentives given to minority businesses.
Harmond's wife, Mame (C. Kelly Wright), an upwardly mobile career woman, also opposes his efforts to redesign the project. The issue threatens their heretofore happy marriage. Not only that, but Roosevelt dissolves their partnership by buying him out. Aligned on the side of saving the house are the old man and an itinerant construction worker, Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender), whom the old man has hired to paint the house. Hence, Harmond is torn between trying to save his marriage and political career on the one hand and, on the other hand, trying to act in an ethical manner and to connect with his roots in the black community.
Director Harry J. Elam Jr., a Wilson scholar and professor at neighboring Stanford University, directs the play with keen insights into Wilson's themes and characters. All five actors create memorable characters. Billingslea is notable as Harmond, exuding an energetic, commanding, yet polished presence that could serve him well in politics. Branklyn's Elder Joseph Barlow is a persistent, patient man who intuitively understands that the white establishment still isn't likely to elevate a black man to a significant position of power. Haney overacts at times, but overall he exudes Roosevelt's optimism and willingness to play the establishment game. Wright is well-matched with Billingslea and is believable as a loving wife and capable career woman. Callender's Sterling successfully serve's as the play's conscience.
Erik Flatmo's somewhat shabby storefront set works well with its folding tables and metal office furniture. Costumes by Connie Strayer, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Mike McCann also enhance the play and characters.
Wilson's too-early death deprived the nation of one of its greatest playwrights, but his plays are a lasting legacy.