An immensely entertaining Radio Golf, the final play by the late great playwright August Wilson has arrived on Broadway in a handsomely staged production by Kenny Leon that bristles with forceful urgency. Convincingly performed by an outstanding cast of five, Wilson’s potent story has numerous plot twists that bring added dimension and suspense to his compelling tale.
Although his story unfolds in a seriocomic style Radio Golf asks a provocative question about the African American experience as we move into the 21st century. Can success be measured by accumulating wealth and by distancing oneself from a history of slavery and poverty or is success ultimately about how well one honors that history? The playwright, as always, has given us richly detailed characters who beautifully articulate both sides of the conflict, as well as the tricky path of the middle ground, in a fascinating drama that he completed just two months prior to his untimely passing in October 2005 at the age of 60. Since Radio Golf premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre two years ago, the play has been produced several times before a coming to Broadway under Kenny Leon’s smart direction.
In Radio Golf set in 1997, Wilson takes on a segment of African American society, the wealthy middle class that were non existent in his previous plays. They are embodied here by three of the play’s main characters, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) and a married couple Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix) and his wife Mame (Tonya Pinkins).
Wilks is a second generation real estate developer, who is about to launch a campaign to become Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. He is supported by the determined Mame, a savvy PR honcho, who herself hopes to become employed by the Governor. Wilks’ ambitious and mercenary business partner is Roosevelt Hicks, who has just been made a Vice President of the Melon Bank.
Good friends, Wilks and Hicks, went to an Ivy League college together and share a passion for golf. In fact a poster of Tiger Woods figures prominently in the plot and hangs on stage most of the evening. The men will soon break ground on a major real estate development that will revitalize Pittsburgh’s Hill District by giving the area a high end apartment complex with parking, plus a shopping mall with Whole Foods, Barnes & Nobles, and Starbucks as the main attractions.
Their dazzling real estate development requires the tearing down of a house at 1839 Wiley that was the home of the mystic Aunt Ester, a former slave who lived to be over 300 years old and figures prominently in other Wilson plays. Two characters, whose voices represent the heritage of the past, emerge to thwart their efforts. A street smart Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks) arrives looking for work and an apparently crazed Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) shows up seeking a lawyer, but claiming to be the real owner of 1839 Wiley.
Many moral dilemmas and ethical questions about progress will come up in the play that feels part modern day mystery, and part old fashioned melodrama, but Wilson does not stack the deck and instead insists we consider both sides of the coin with richly detailed characters. The lone exception is Mame, who unfortunately is underwritten, and makes one wonder what fine tuning the gifted playwright might have made had he lived longer.
Mr. Wilson had long been working on his epic task of chronicling the 20 century African American experience in 10 plays, one for each decade of the century. Written in no specific order the plays take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson, the child of a white father and a black mother, grew up. With his bittersweet Radio Golf, Wilson completed his dream, but his passing leaves a sad void.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Radio Golf opened May 8, 2007 on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200 or at the theatre box office.