Radio Golf at the Public Theatre | Program Notes
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Friday, October 31, 2008

Radio Golf at the Public Theatre

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2008 at 8:28 AM

As usual with August Wilson, his Radio Golf offers more than can be adequately digested in a formal review, let alone a humble blog entry. The play, the 1990s piece of Wilson's monumental 20th Century Cycle, depicts ambitious Harmond Wilks' attempt to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. (The show runs through Sat., Nov. 2.)

The fine production, directed by Ron OJ Parson, includes obvious coincidental foreshadowings of current presidential campaign. ("They don't mind us playing their game," one character warns Wilks. "They just don't want you outplaying them.") But Wilson's poetic flow and earthy humor notwithstanding, what interests me most is his argument -- perhaps the cycle's key theme -- about community.

Wilks, following in his father's real-estate footsteps, is a child of privilege. (Indeed, I think this is Wilson's lone depiction of yupwardly mobile blacks.) The titular sport is Wilson's dubious symbol of African-American social striving. And Wilks is faced with a stark choice: Proceed with the redevelopment plan that could secure him the mayoralty, or save the mythic house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, the playwright's very symbol of black heritage? Listen to his business partner and wife/campaign-manager on one side -- or to the street voices on the other? Harm or Harmony?

The multifaceted discussion of community is fascinating. Handyman Sterling Johnson argues that Wilks can't "bring back" the Hill, because it's dead; he can only replace it. Wilks and his money-hungry partner, Roosevelt Hicks, meanwhile, eagerly await the "blighted" designation of "their" neighborhood that will earn their project federal funding. ("I told you blight would come through," says Harmon, and they celebrate giddily.) And Johnson and Wilson's octogenarian voice of the past, Elder Joseph Barlow, insist on the building's innate value. (It was the home of the Cycle's iconic Aunt Esther.)

Wilson offers no easy answers. But as I watched the play, Wilks' repeated insistence on following the rule of law tickled something in my mind. Then Johnson decided to fight money, power and progress. When Wilks ultimately did, too -- to abandon the rules -- I couldn't help recalling Gem of the Ocean, the second-to-last play Wilson wrote. (Golf was the last.) Gem, too, made a case for rebellion, even anarchy (there, sabotaging a steel mill; here, defying bulldozers). Wilson died in 2005; his final messages about community sound pretty radical.

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