For some, the Pittsburgh premiere of Radio Golf, this week at the O'Reilly Theatre, is cause for celebration. But for fans of August Wilson, a playwright who grew up in the Hill District and immortalized the neighborhood until his final breath, the premiere is more than that -- not a mere homecoming, nor just a circle completed, but a major historic event.
Wilson, who died in 2005, is among the Steel City's most mythic prodigies. Like Michael Chabon, he left Pittsburgh for bigger cities (in his case, Minneapolis and Seattle), but Pittsburgh never left him.
Our city has its literary explorers: Thomas Bell commemorated our industrial roots in Out of This Furnace, and Chabon offered a hip, post-steel vision in Wonder Boys and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But Wilson's canon is unique because of its epic size and unrelenting strength: His 20th-Century Cycle (also called the Pittsburgh Cycle) contains 10 complete plays, each representing a decade, and each episode complementing the others. Some, like King Hedley II, run more than three hours. Only one, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, takes place outside of Pittsburgh. And Radio Golf, the last installment, was the last script Wilson wrote, only months before his passing.
Radio Golf has debuted in cities across the country, from Boston to Los Angeles, but it's only now that the drama arrives in the city that inspired it. The Pittsburgh Public Theatre has earned rights to first production, not only because of the budget and quality it can bring to bear, but because the Public has produced every other play in the Cycle; fittingly, this production of Radio Golf, directed by Ron OJ Parson, is both the last of the Cycle to premiere locally and the finale of Wilson's 1,000-plus-page epic. The playwright, a man of metaphor, would have appreciated this moment's symbolism.
But that's just happenstance. What's more symbolic still is the story that Radio Golf tells: Harmond Wilks, a successful African-American lawyer, is running for mayor of Pittsburgh. His platform is simple: Clean up the Hill District. Tear down the old buildings. Build loft condos. Raise the real-estate value and make sure everybody shops at Whole Foods. As for the election, Wilks is a shoo-in.
There's only one teeny-tiny problem -- a crotchety lunatic from the Hill District, who claims to own the house at 1839 Wylie Ave. Wilks will need to tear down this house to go ahead with his redevelopment plans, but once he sees the house -- a Victorian masterwork, and the setting for half the Pittsburgh Cycle -- Wilks hesitates. He must decide to destroy the house or defend urban blight, to preserve or to progress.
The house is fictitious, and so is Harmond Wilks. But with Pittsburgh witnessing the very real construction of casinos, the devastating Port Authority cutbacks, the re-named "Eastside" district, and the continuing hostility between developers and long-time renters, the themes are all too real. Radio Golf takes place in the 1990s, but it speaks of our most current identity crises. We may have waited three years for Wilson's denouement, but it couldn't have come at a better time.
Radio Golf is performed in previews Thu., Oct. 2-Thu., Oct. 9, then runs Oct. 10-Nov. 2. O'Reilly Theatre, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $35-55 ($15 students and under 26). 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org