Since its premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre two years ago, "Radio Golf" has been produced six times around the country. It arrived last night on Broadway, where it opened at the Cort Theatre. This smart, resonant and solidly entertaining production was worth the wait.
The late August Wilson's final play is set in a newly opened office in the largely poor Hill District of Pittsburgh. It's the former 'hood of Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), a thriving second-generation real-estate honcho, who's about to break ground on a huge local redevelopment project and run for mayor. With wife Mame (Tonya Pinkins), a take-charge PR whiz by his side, along with savvy partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), it looks like Wilks' future is dazzlingly bright.
Then a shadow is cast by Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), a Hill resident whose house is to be razed because of Wilks' project. Barlow, naturally, wants to keep his property.
Is progress possible without erasing the past? Can the two co-exist? Can a moral man make it in politics?
Those are a few of the questions posed in the drama, which includes a bit of a mystery and completes Wilson's 10-play cycle about African-American life in the 20th century. The author, who died of liver cancer in October 2005, has important things to say about contemporary society - and he says them deftly. Instead of his typically long speeches, "Radio Golf" has rather punchier, more everyday language, much of it humorous.
Director Kenny Leon has assembled a cast that clicks. Lennix anchors the production, capturing a mindful man's dilemma. Pinkins' role is underwritten, but she broadcasts that she's a woman with a mission, interested only in moving forward.
As Roosevelt, a man whose passions are golf (a clue to the title) and wealth, Williams isn't likable, but he is fascinating and real. John Earl Jelks, as Sterling Johnson, who arrives on the scene looking for a construction job, evokes streetwise, straight-talking charm. And as Barlow, Chisholm stands out as the keeper of the past who won't go away quietly. Whenever he's onstage, there are fireworks.
Scenic designer David Gallo's vivid set - an office space flanked by the ghostlike, burned-out shells of a barber shop and a diner - evokes the past bumping up against the present. It speaks as eloquently as Wilson's words.
Wilks' campaign slogan is "Hold me to it." Wilson will be remembered for holding himself to a winning standard.
August Wilson's fascinating "Radio Golf," which opened last night at the Cort Theatre, has a bittersweet tang to its achievement. Wilson, who died of cancer nearly two years ago at the comparatively early age of 60, set himself the epic task of celebrating - no, perhaps recording - the 20th century American black experience.
So there are 10 plays, each concerned with one specific decade, and centered on one specific place: Pittsburgh's Hill District, where Wilson, the child of a white father and black mother, was born and raised.
Wilson was tidying up the final script of "Radio Golf," set in the '90s, right up until the end. Now it's on Broadway and the cycle is completed, beautifully staged by Kenny Leon.
In "Radio Golf," Wilson closely addresses himself to a segment of black society virtually absent from the other plays - the emergent black middle class, wealthy, Ivy League-educated lawyers, bankers, politicians and, oh yes, golfers.
The central figure is Harmond Wilks (marvelously played with totally convincing charm and political charisma by a dazzling Harry Lennix, best known as Walid Al-Rezani on "24"), a rich, second-generation real estate developer who has just announced his candidacy to be the first black mayor of Pittsburgh.
Supported by his wife and p.r. manager, Mame (a smoothly and complicatedly confident Tonya Perkins), Harmond is also engaged in a huge real-estate project in company with the fiercely ambitious Roosevelt Hicks (a fine James A. Williams), a black Mellon Bank vice president, who is convinced that the only color that counts is green - as in golf course and money.
It soon becomes apparent that the new development involves the demolition of an old, almost derelict Federal-style mansion, which Harmond, who although he was acting in more or less good faith, does not actually own.
The moral and political issues of the rights of the past over the opportunities of the present would have done Ibsen proud, as Wilson shows Harmond conflicted by the temptation of expediency over the pressure of honesty.
All over the almost symbolic question of new development and historic neighborhoods, Wilson counterpoints issues of race - and he is a tough political playwright who takes no prisoners. He shoots them.
Wilson sees a world in fairly nuanced tones of black, white and gray, but his view of the black middle class, of which he was clearly a member, is less rose-colored than American society in general would wish for.
As a black playwright, he has no hesitation in speaking the white-dreaded N-word.
He employs that six-letter word as a mark of a black man who has sacrificed his integrity to get ahead - by tokenism or manipulation of minority quota advantages - and has made a Faustian deal with white society.
Is he being totally fair to the contemporary American black? Perhaps not. As a white man, I choose to believe not. But Wilson didn't have to be fair. He was a major, perhaps, who yet knows, even a great American playwright, and this was the story he wanted told. And it makes for great theater.
An elegy whispers beneath the energy that animates “Radio Golf,” the last play by August Wilson. The production that opened last night at the Cort Theater, directed by Kenny Leon, has the crackle of a bustling comedy crossed with an old-fashioned melodrama, in which scenes end with surprise revelations or personal declarations of war.
But a sadness runs through the liveliness: a throbbing lament for a lost time, a lost civilization, a lost language. The symphonically rich and idiosyncratic talk that once rang through the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the African-American neighborhood where most of Mr. Wilson’s work is set, can be heard only faintly now. Pittsburgh, it would seem, has been stripped of its poetry.
“Radio Golf,” completed only months before Mr. Wilson’s death in 2005, is the final, and in dramatic terms the thinnest, work in his magnificent 10-play cycle about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Though the plays, which have been staged during the past 25 years, were not written in chronological sequence, this one appropriately takes place in the twilight of the 20th century, in 1997.
As Mr. Wilson portrays them, the 1990s are an arid, soul-sapping time for the black man. This is because his characters at last have the chance to enter the white man’s kingdom of money, stocks and bonds and real estate and takeovers and, oh yes, the moneymaker’s favorite pastime, golf. A poster of Tiger Woods figures in “Radio Golf,” and it says much about the play’s priorities that tearing it down becomes a small moral victory.
“Radio Golf” centers on the Faustian figure of Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), a real estate developer poised to run for mayor of Pittsburgh. Harmond’s wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), is in line to be head of the public relations office of the governor of Pennsylvania. And Harmond and his longtime friend Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) are on the verge of clinching a big redevelopment deal to revitalize the Hill, erasing its history in the process.
“This is the big time,” Roosevelt says to Harmond, “nothing but blue skies.”
But there’s a blot on those skies in the form of a house that must be torn down to make way for a new shopping and apartment complex (which will include Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, of course). The address of that house is 1839 Wiley. And if you know your August Wilson, you know this was the address of the ancient Aunt Ester, the former slave who lived for centuries on the Hill as the embodiment of a past that must never be forgotten.
If the ambitious Mame and Roosevelt are the faces of the future, two men named Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks) and Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) are the voices of the past, spiritual children of Aunt Ester. To his surprise, Harmond feels the force of both sides, and “Radio Golf” unfolds as a battle for his soul. The schism is manifest even in David Gallo’s astutely divided set, which pits the sterility of Harmond’s real estate office against the rich squalor of the abandoned businesses that surround it.
It’s rare that an August Wilson play can be parsed so neatly into a war of good versus evil, or into characters who are more notable for what they signify than who they are. But in a play that is closer than usual to the period in which he was writing, Mr. Wilson appears to have felt an urgency about articulating what he saw as the clear and present danger of assimilation.
In a climactic, crowd-rousing moment, Roosevelt, who turns out to have the moral depth of the financial shark played by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” is denounced as “a Negro.” His accuser is the poor-but-truthful Sterling, who tells him: “Negroes got blindeyetis. A dog knows it’s a dog. A cat knows it’s a cat. But a Negro don’t know he’s a Negro. He thinks he’s a white man.”
In dramatic terms, Negroes, to use Sterling’s parlance, are certainly less interesting than their opposites, which the play describes with an unprintable word. These are the characters who have usually dominated Mr. Wilson’s plays: individualists who stylishly improvise their way through the sweet-and-sour jazz of life on the Hill.
Roosevelt, Mame and Harmond are, by contrast, a bland breed. They converse in a sanitized language (even when the words are blue) flavored by corporate-speak and mainstream advertising. It feels appropriate that the anthem of Roosevelt’s and Harmond’s friendship is not some frisky blues number but “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”
On the other hand, Sterling, a construction worker who is his very own union, and Joseph, one of those crazy old sages who show up throughout Mr. Wilson’s work, betray the too-clean edges of the cookie cutter. They aren’t conflicted about what they believe in, any more than Mame and Harmond are. And Mr. Lennix’s Harmond is too passive a creature, a chalkboard for the diagramming of opposing arguments, for us to care much personally about what happens to him.
The momentum of “Radio Golf” is all in its twisting plot, which suggests a financial suspense drama like “Other People’s Money” crossed with the hopeful populism of a Frank Capra movie, in which a confused man discovers the decency within.
On that level, “Radio Golf” has an engaging snap. It definitely feels tighter and sharper than it did when I saw it in New Haven two years ago. Mr. Leon keeps things moving at enough of a clip so that even what are essentially economics lessons have a theatrical zest. And the performers never drag the pace or muddle clarity. Mr. Jelks, in particular, is outstanding, though he also has the most fully detailed character to work with.
Still, it’s hard not to miss the music that brought such distinctive and seductive life to the other plays in the cycle. It is Mr. Wilson’s point, of course, that when people cut themselves off from their heritage, they cut themselves off from the source of their song.
It’s a heartening sign when Harmond, the imperiled Everyman of this drama, shows that he at least hasn’t lost his instinct for such music. Listen to his description of first seeing Mame: “It was raining. I thought she was gonna melt. The rain look like it hurt her. Like the two wasn’t supposed to go together.”
In Mr. Wilson’s world, there’s hope for any man who can talk like that. The song of the Hill, it seems, hasn’t ended, after all.
It is the last big speech in the last play of August Wilson's great 10-volume cycle about the African-American 20th century, and it's a beauty.
Harmond Wilks, the charismatic son of a real-estate mogul and Pittsburgh's first black mayoral candidate, glances beyond the comfort and promise of upward mobility. With an urgency not typical among Wilson's textured characters, this handsome man in the good suit asks whether - despite Oprah and that "black guy working in management" - the center of power in America has ever really shifted.
"Radio Golf," which opened last night at the same Cort Theatre that in 1984 housed his Broadway debut, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," was revised and completed while Wilson was dying from liver cancer in 2005. Nowhere can we sense a shadow of twilight, diminution of life force or the loss of passion for gorgeous writing.
"Radio Golf" may not be the deepest volume on Wilson's shelf. It does not have the ravishing poetry of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" or a mesmerizing central character like "Fences." But "Radio Golf," the 1990s chapter in Wilson's chronicle of Pittsburgh's Hill District, is not only his most contemporary work. It is also his most accessible, most structurally focused and most unambiguously political. The playwright rips the historical cover off his warning to blacks who forget to listen for ancestral footsteps. As we look back on the Wilson century, we see this is precisely where he always intended to go.
In the early scenes, it seems as though Kenny Leon's production has lost the lyrical music of Wilson's words. Harmond (Harry Lennix,) his accomplished wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), and his upwardly mobile lifelong pal Roosevelt (James A. Williams) all speak in an unfamiliar rhythm. At first, their percussive rat-a-tat makes us wonder why they are bellowing at one another in Harmon's new storefront campaign office that's in the middle of the dilapidated community.
Then we realize that these are Wilson's first assimilated middle-class black characters and, clearly, he worries for them.
We learn as much the minute we meet Sterling (John Earl Jelks), the neighborhood handyman, a self-made fellow who went to school with the rich guys. Sterling talks with the leisurely, offhand poetry of a resident musician in Wilson's lush orchestra. In comes Old Joe, dazzlingly portrayed by Anthony Chisholm with the shrewd, unpredictable wisdom of the playwright's most original storytellers.
Harmond and Roosevelt are the heads of a huge redevelopment project to reinvent this once-vital slum with an apartment complex graced with no less an endorsement than the participation of Starbucks and Whole Foods. Old Joe claims that the abandoned mansion on the site belongs to him. In fact, it first belonged to Aunt Ester, a mystical African forebear who died at age 349, and whose presence connects much of Wilson's cycle.
So "Radio Golf" is ostensibly about the blackface on white real-estate deals, the pressure on black politicians to fit in, and the status symbol of golf in the self-image of Roosevelt. A vice president of Mellon Bank, he fronts a deal to buy a black radio station and can't wait to get his new business cards.
In its big heart, however, this is an urgent call from Aunt Ester - that is, Wilson - to remember what the 20th century has done to these people and their community. Lennix has the stature of bruised idealism as a privileged man who believes his campaign slogan, "Hold Me to It." Pinkins makes much out of the relatively small role of his wife, who has just become the governor's new press secretary.
Williams is appropriately hard to like as Roosevelt, who worries more about his Lexus than about the street on which it is parked. But Jelks and especially Chisholm connect the dots through Wilson's profound and tumultuous century. What a journey it has been, and how grateful we are to have taken it.
An elegant, accomplished black man runs for political office espousing a populist message but finds that his smooth assimilation into the upper echelon of society is held suspect by some black Americans.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, It might be noted that Radio Golf (* * * out of four), the final installment in August Wilson's 10-play cycle tracing the experiences of black Americans through the 20th century, premiered in 2005, when a newly elected senator named Barack Obama was a rising superstar. That's not to suggest that Wilson, who died of cancer later that year, foresaw Obama's presidential aspirations, but it's a safe bet that the playwright could have predicted some of the tensions and contradictions cropping up in coverage of the candidate's current campaign.
Radio Golf, which opened Tuesday at Broadway's Cort Theatre, deals with similar conundrums in tracing the mayoral bid of Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix). Unlike Obama, Wilks owes much of his success to privilege having been provided a plush real estate job by his father. But unlike his pal Roosevelt Hicks, a Tiger Woods-worshiping corporate climber with whom Wilks plans to redevelop Pittsburgh's embattled Hill District, Wilks is prone to sympathize with the disenfranchised.
So when an old man with a shady background objects to the planned demolition of his house as part of the redevelopment project, Wilks isn't entirely dismissive. The dilapidated house turns out to have profound relevance both in Wilks' personal history and Wilson's canon, and it becomes a metaphor through which the playwright examines the quandaries of the black middle class, who must reconcile progress with a history of oppression that still weighs heavily on many peers.
The language in Radio Golf, set in 1997, lacks some of the musical majesty of Wilson's earlier plays, but the distinction is purposeful and inevitable, like the difference between gospel and contemporary R&B, music that's more the realm of this play's baby-boomer characters. The dialogue's rhythms sun crackle, and we're reminded of the blend of folksy poetry and fierce conscience that made Wilson one of this country's most essential artists.
The cast, directed with rigor and wit by Kenny Leon, does justice to that legacy. All five actors are excellent, but James A. Williams deserves special credit for his nuanced portrait of Hicks, who emerges not as a villain but as a complicated man whose passionate, reasoned arguments are a testament to Wilson's probing and generous humanity.
It's a shame that that humanity won't inform future works, but Wilson's voice will remain a forceful, beautiful and necessary instrument.
Throughout its majestic 100-year arc, August Wilson's epic, 10-play cycle about the 20th century African-American experience has weighed the power of the past to shape the present as his characters strived, initially for basic rights of freedom and dignity. As the struggle shifted to one of assimilation and upward mobility, its spiritual price grew increasingly apparent in the late playwright's reflection on the erosion of tradition, identity and community. So it's not unexpected that the cost to the black man's soul is bitterly acknowledged in Wilson's concluding chapter, "Radio Golf."
But that melancholy note also brings a dramatic cost. Whether his characters were in the grip of hope or despair, joy or sorrow, Wilson was always a humanist first and a social chronicler second. His compassion for even the shiftiest of his characters was rarely in doubt. But aside from two classic Wilson archetypes -- one a repository for history and a living demand for justice, the other a personified conscience -- the figures knocking heads onstage in "Radio Golf" seem orphaned.
The point is clearly that these people have strayed from their true selves, compromising their values and losing their voice. But while echoing that loss in their language makes sense, it also means sacrificing much of the singing lyricism and quasi-mythic qualities that give Wilson's best works their incomparable bluesy texture and piercing depth. Despair was laced through "King Hedley II," the chronological predecessor to "Radio Golf," set during the 1980s. Here, that despair moves toward anger, frustration and self-reproach, but those feelings never take full dramatic shape.
It would have been a tragedy for Wilson to die without closing his uncommonly ambitious cycle by completing at least the initial version of its 10th and final part, set in 1997. ("Radio Golf" premiered at Yale Rep in April 2005; Wilson died of liver cancer the following October.) However, the playwright didn't live to follow through the refinement process that crucially allowed his plays to evolve as they traveled the regional circuit en route to Broadway, which is cause for regret. Despite the sensitive molding of director Kenny Leon, something is missing here.
Most significantly, something is missing from the passive central character, Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), his shifting moral compass seemingly ruled not by inner workings but by narrative necessity.
Scion of a real estate business, Harmond views his redevelopment project -- turning a block in Pittsburgh's economically blighted Hill District into a massive housing and commercial hub complete with Whole Foods, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble -- as a stepping stone toward election as mayor. His ambitious wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), is behind him, as is his business partner and golf buddy, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams). In a separate move to get a stake in a radio station, Hicks reveals he has no qualms about acting as the pawn in a white businessman's deal requiring part minority ownership.
The seemingly inconsequential act of a nutty old man repainting an abandoned house on the development site changes everything. His claim of ownership jeopardizes the project, drives a wedge between Harmond and Roosevelt, causes Mame to question her husband and prompts Harmond to reassess both his past and his future.
Wilson's love of half-crazy, disenfranchised oracles has been evident throughout the Pittsburgh Cycle, and Elder Joseph Barlow, known as Old Joe, is a fine addition to that gallery. He's played by Anthony Chisholm with the stiff joints of an old-timer unused to material comfort, the wry grimace of someone allergic to hypocrisy and a raspy-voiced directness that cuts through the character's discursive anecdotes.
In a neat stitch that ties off the decade-by-decade thread snaking through Wilson's epic, the shared ancestry of Harmond and Old Joe is traced back to characters in the cycle's chronological opener, "Gem of the Ocean." That play unfolded in the home of Aunt Ester, the powerfully spiritual figure referred to throughout the cycle and, in a sense, the mother of all Wilson's characters. Of course it's that same house -- and black heritage itself -- that's now threatened with demolition.
It's significant -- and true to the note of tarnished hope on which Wilson's cycle concludes -- that in place of the condemned house, alive with magic and history, we watch these characters in a drab, starkly lit office, surrounded by the decayed shell of Hill District life. With Martin Luther King Jr. and Tiger Woods sharing space on the back wall, David Gallo's set suitably evokes the uneasy cohabitation of past and present.
Also resurfacing from an earlier play is Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), the firebrand ex-con first seen in the 1969-set "Two Trains Running" who now returns as a one-man union to adjudicate the debate between right and wrong as a war of cowboys and Indians.
While both Old Joe and Sterling tend to talk in speechy instant aphorisms, they have the unmistakable vigor of vintage Wilson figures -- the kind once simply described by the playwright as having "loud voices and big hearts." Commerce and industry are largely inaccessible to them, yet in their own uncompromising way, they continue pursuing the elusive American dream.
Unsurprisingly, Chisholm and Jelks give the production's most involving performances, unleashing some of Wilson's characteristically vibrant arias. One of the most bracing is Sterling's dressing down of Roosevelt, in which he passionately outlines the difference between two contentious "N" words applied to black Americans and where the two men fall in those categories.
In Wilson's view, Roosevelt is an inevitable product of progress, divorced from the concerns of less advantaged blacks and focused solely on his own advancement. Williams, who originated the role of Roosevelt at Yale Rep, deftly keeps his character amusing in the gabby first act, grounding his long friendship with Harmond before fully exposing his self-serving nature in the second. The play's moral adversaries, Sterling and Roosevelt are its most roundly realized characters.
Best known for musical roles, including the lead in "Caroline, or Change," Pinkins conveys the self-assurance of a driven woman whose navigational rudder points firmly away from the Hill District. She brings more warmth than Mame has on the page but is still stuck with a thankless character.
Lennix has a quiet charisma that sits well with Harmond, an innately ethical man who rediscovers his idealism and no doubt will inspire generalized comparisons to Barack Obama. Harmond has a moving moment when he's transported while describing the effect of entering Aunt Ester's house -- feeling the woodwork, smelling the air.
But the character's convictions are never as vivid as that description; he lacks the definition to provide the drama with a galvanic center. From a playwright so versed in poetic realism, Harmond's redemptive course of action feels mechanical. Still, even if it's less emotionally fulfilling than earlier installments, "Radio Golf" brings the titanic undertaking of a great playwright to a somber, reflective conclusion, underlining that the African-American struggle is ongoing.