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***CONTENT WARNING: This review contains charged racial identifiers in reference to and in reflection of their context and function in Radio Golf.***
The new season for Pure Life Theatre opens with August Wilson’s Radio Golf, a play firmly set in the modern world, but with a moral that comes from the stage set of a hundred years ago. In 1997, Harmond Wilks is running to become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh. A successful businessman, Harmond is seeming to do everything right: he has placed his headquarters in a part of town that is designed to get new voters to the polls, and his wife is his publicist and has him set in the press as a man of action. Wilks and his partner, Roosevelt Hicks, are a team of developers who are set to begin a major reconstruction of a “blighted” part of town, and the plans for the development are going smoothly. Wilks is set, it seems, on the “right path.”
So what, we wonder, is the problem? The “problem” seems not to be a problem at all. As a part of the pre-development plan, Wilks’ planning has purchased a number of old houses from the city, which are designated as structures to be demolished. All but one has actually been demolished, and it is slated to be bulldozed by the end of the month. Wilks, meanwhile, along with his wife and partner, seem poised for a prosperous future; his political capital may just get him elected. The “problem” comes in the form of an old gent by the name of Elder Joseph Barlow, “Ol’ Joe” to his friends, who claims to be the owner of the house scheduled for demolition. As the play progresses, Harmond begins to realize that Ol’ Joe may be right; there is a possibility that Joe may very well be the owner of a house he intends to set his daughter up in. Demolition may be untenable.
Wilson’s all-Black cast faces a dilemma that is not new in the pantheon of stagecraft. In 1888, Henrik Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People, which pits a man of principle and learning against not only the town he lives in but also his family members. We see in Wilson’s compact five-character play the same kind of situation. Harmond Wilks (Mike Harrison) and his wife, Mame (Tyanna West), begin to look at the situation from opposite ends. Wilks’ partner, Roosevelt (T. J. Swann), has entered into other aspects of modern life by investing in what Wilks feels is foolhardy, and a rift opens up between the two. Ol’ Joe, Elder Joseph Barlow (Gerald Louis Campbell) maintains that the house to be demolished is still his, and Wilks is coming to understand that, morally at least, the house is still his. Finally, as a man who comments on the modern situation for the Black man, Sterling Johnson (Robert Cotton) is a man of the people; he is a solo businessman, a “union of one” who owns his own business, his own truck and equipment, and his own style of living. He voices Wilson’s views on the state of the Black man in modern society. He tells Wilks that “they” (meaning the powers that be) will never let him be mayor. He also expounds at length on the two different types of Black man in the world today: the “Negro” and the “Niggah.” Sterling states that the “Niggah” is the Black man who fights his own fight against the hierarchy, keeps his head down and pushes forward, and is, as much as he can be, his own man, despite outside pressures. The “Negro,” on the other hand, survives by “cowtowing” to the White man, aligning himself with him, and takes advantage of the small favors that come his way as a result. But Sterling, a self-proclaimed “Niggah,” cannot abide the “Negro” and prefers to struggle on his own terms. He is the impetus behind the decisions Wilks makes, about Joseph Barlow, the plans for reconstruction, and his own political future.
Wilson builds a complex and intricate case, showing the two sides of the scale in Sterling on the one hand and Roosevelt on the other. Roosevelt has, as Sterling sees it, “sold out” to the White man, taking advantage of the connection he has made with a golfing partner, Bernie Smith, who has gotten him to invest in a radio station, offering him a 10% stake plus the running of the station. Roosevelt agrees, and soon we hear him as he airs his own program on the air. An avid golfer, he creates a program offering tips to golfers, which he has called Radio Golf. It appears to be a hit. Roosevelt has latched onto a means of bettering himself, and seems, as well, to be moving beyond Wilks and his campaign. Wilks, meanwhile, is struggling with Barlow’s house and even attempts to save it for him by incorporating it into the new plans he has come up with for the development. When that seems untenable, he attempts to compensate Barlow for the house with a large 10K check, which Barlow refuses. He intends to keep his house and move his daughter into it.
How, we wonder, will all this tension resolve? Wilson has written a carefully-balanced play that seems to take place calmly and serenely in a construction office, but which has potentially explosive consequences. As these forces begin to tear at the fabric of the world Wilks lives in, will he keep to the plan (as his father had taught him) or will he rebel? It is a play that brings the realities of an 1888 play firmly into the 20th century, and we are caught up in the struggle. Director Jamal Farrar has created a gripping scenario that keeps us guessing, and we find ourselves pulling for Wilks as Everyman. It is his fate that hangs in the balance, and we are bound to see what happens. Radio Golf is a play for the ages. Pure Life’s rendition is as real and as potent as Wilson intended, and we cannot help but be swept up in its circumstances.
Radio Golf continues through Sunday, June 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.