Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow.
I somehow managed to miss out on August Wilson’s Radio Golf when it came out in the 2000s. As my colleague Chris Jones has explored, it premiered to less than enthusiastic reviews, surprising for the final work of a lifelong effort by a master playwright to write a play that highlighted the black experience for each of the ten decades of the 20th Century. This was partly the result of the rush to completion that Wilson, suffering from the cancer that would take his life, felt as he wrote it. This month, though, Court Theatre is presenting a brilliant (and, yes, masterful) interpretation of this play that is something that shouldn’t be missed.
As the final play of Wilson’s cycle, Radio Golf deals with 1990s gentrification of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where most of these plays are set. The former home of his iconic Aunt Esther (a woman whose presence looms over several of these plays) is about to be demolished in order to provide the neighborhood with much-needed renovation: new shopping and new apartments. Real estate broker Harmond Wilks (Allen Gilmore) and his partner Roosevelt Hicks (James Vincent Meredith) see glowing dollar signs in their budding new development, but what they fail to see is the effect such gentrification will have on the history and the soul of the neighborhood. Enter Elder Joseph Barlow (Alfred G. Wilson), a WWII vet who claims to own the property in question and desires to stop the demolition, and Sterling Johnson, a former classmate of Wilks who has remained in the neighborhood (and at times in prison) and who sees the impact that their project is going to have. Barlow and Johnson are the consciences of the piece: even though Wilson is careful to have us see the benefits of the new construction, they are there to remind us at every turn of the history it will wipe out.
The house, described as dilapidated on the exterior, is lovely on the inside, making it a direct symbol for the Hills neighborhood itself: falling apart and struggling to maintain its rich heart. And when Wilks discovers that, due to his own error years earlier, Barlow actually does own the property, he is torn about how to handle it. His awakening conscience threatens the development, his relationships with Hicks and his wife (Ann Joseph), and his nascent run for the mayoralty. Yet he cannot ignore it, especially with Barlow and Johnson there to spur him on.
Ron OJ Parson directs this version with a keen eye toward both the wonderful characters that Wilson creates and the history of the actual Hill District and the Century Cycle itself. It’s very easy, watching it, to feel the love for this forlorn but key area and the history recounted in the earlier plays. In addition, Parson is highly conscious of the very funny dialogue that this play contains. I have always maintained that, when a play has humor, directors should make sure that the audience finds it, but too many directors dealing with dramas have a tendency to think that the laughs will detract from the play’s power. Not so Parson: the first act of Radio Golf is as funny as anything I’ve seen recently, setting the audience up neatly for the much more serious second act.
Parson has gotten outstanding performances from his actors, especially his two leads. Gilmore’s portrayal of the thoughtful Wilks is intricate and impressive. At first slightly annoyed by the arrival of these two new people in his midst, he treats them well and ends up listening to them, slowly building on layers of his own past to a sense of comprehension of their points of view. Meredith as Hicks has a more straightforward job to do. Hicks, an upwardly mobile executive first with a bank and then with a radio station, is simply intolerant of these people he sees as lesser, with no patience for them at all. Meredith’s powerful presence and deep, commanding voice make Hicks an even stronger character than Wilson wrote: the embodiment of the gentrification itself and his generation itself in both its good and bad elements. We can improve our lot, Wilson is saying, but we must be careful not to sell our souls while we do it.
I’ve seen many other productions of Wilson’s work, often at the Goodman, and this Radio Golf stands with the finest of them. Wilks’ slow comprehension of his connection to the past and Hicks’ abandonment of it to suit his own advancement make for provocative theatre. We are clearly on Wilks’ side in all of this, but the price he pays is high: as he complains at one point, the powers that be keep “moving the edge” of the circle he finds himself in so that he—and by inference all black men—cannot maintain balance. Thus we can easily understand Hicks as well, eagerly taking any bit of the pie that he can get his hands on. I don’t know how different this version is from the ones that played a decade ago, but I do believe that Parson has created a definitive production of this show, allowing it to take the place it deserves as the final piece of an ambitious accomplishment. Wilson would be proud.
Radio Golf is now playing at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave, Chicago, until Oct 30. Performance times vary; check the website at Court Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.