Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
August Wilson has a very special place in Seattle theatre. Nine of the ten plays in his epic, African-American Century cycle have been produced here, as well as his only solo performance. He lived on Seattle's Capitol Hill for many years, and was frequently seen in the lobbies of local theatres. His passing last October felt to many of us like a death in the family, and this production of his final play, "Radio Golf" is both valedictory and memorial. Happily, it is also one that celebrates all the best of his gift for creative, entertaining drama with sharp, distinctive characters and a passionate need to express the outrage, hope, conflict and enduring strength of the African-American experience.
In a beautifully acted, briskly paced production, under the expert direction of Kenny Leon, the century concludes in the late 1990's, in a small real-estate office located at the blighted center of Wilson's familiar Hill District of Pittsburg. Harmond Wilks is a real estate developer who is now running for mayor. His campaign slogan is "Hold Him To It" and the play slowly enriches our understanding that what he is being held to is a personal connection with the history of this city, of this community, of his people, and of his own integrity. The office is the only intact business nested in a towering cityscape of blackened ruin, brilliantly realized by set designer David Gallo.
Rocky Carroll is terrific as Harmond, making him likable and admirable, but also giving dimension to his personal conflicts and depth to his responsibility toward the people who have come before him. Throughout this play, Wilson fills this decrepit neighborhood with real ghosts, real pain and real authority that can be ignored only at great cost. By making Harmond a man of substance, both in wealth and in character, the first of Wilson's protagonists to be firmly in the upper middle-class carries privilege and responsibility in equal measure.
At issue is a major development to revitalize the Hill district, but in order to proceed they must first demolish the near ruin of a house at 1839 Wylie, where many of Wilson's previous plays have taken place. Questions of rightful ownership, potential compromise, progress and abandonment of heritage all are embodied in a "worthless" home, apparently of value only to the irascible Elder Joseph Barlow. Harmond's desire to "save the city" seems possible only at the cost of a moral and ethical compromise he is unwilling to make. His distinct if ill-defined connection with this powerless old man is also his connection to a family relationship, and a cultural relationship, lost in the rubble of the past. The vivid characterization of Barlow by Anthony Chisholm draws a firm line through all of the preceding characters and stories of Wilson's epic, and links his identity with the essential identity of Harmond. "If his life don't mean nothin', then my life don't mean nothin'," another character says about an Army buddy, and about all of the others in this play.
For Harmond's ambitious and successful partner, Roosevelt, the only history that really matters is the tally at the end of today's ledger. James A. Williams gives the character a nice blend of swagger, greed, pride and accomplishment, making his pragmatism as sensible as it is soulless. He is the passionate golfer who finds in a perfect swing the absolute freedom that rises above all circumstance of race and society. When his race is used in order for partners to buy into a "minority owned" radio station, he broadcasts a program of golf advice, adding yet another layer of separation from the reality of his game. When Harmond tries to stop the development, Roosevelt uses his newly found financial power ruthlessly. The junk on the Hill is going to give way to new, upscale apartments and trendy businesses. And Roosevelt will have an even more expensive car to park on the street, and try to protect from "those people."
Completing the ensemble is John Earl Jelks, as Sterling Johnson, an honest tradesman who has to be his own union in order to get a fair job. His authority and integrity underscore the compromised "labor" of Harmond and Roosevelt, and also connect the real identity of the hill to the plans for the future. Denise Burse plays Harmond's wife, Mame, with elegance and urbane sophistication, making it clear that her vision of both the Hill's, and Harmond's future is one of capitalistic modernity. She is unsentimental and motivated, and whether Harmond will go forward with her, or she will go forward without him, is entirely his decision.
At times August Wilson can simply be too verbose, too enamored with the wonderful monologues and disputations of a first-rate mind grappling with important and complex questions. But in "Radio Golf", he seems to be at ease with the action of the play, the interaction and conflicts of the individuals. He's also willing to give us simple pleasures, the light moments and revealing gestures of commonplace life. It's a substantial story about familiar and significant characters leading us to insights about vital subjects. I don't think you get to ask much more from the drama.
Whether all of the plays in Wilson's cycle will endure is a question only time can answer, and almost certainly some are considerably better than others. But the entire work is a singular and towering achievement, both more ambitious and more fully realized than anything else in contemporary theatre. We don't get very many truly great playwrights in a lifetime. For me personally, to know that I was able to sit in a theatre with him a couple of rows away, to listen to him talk in post-play discussions, and to see almost all of his writing produced on local stages is one of the highlights in my theatre-going life. August Wilson cast a very big shadow.