Master Stroke: The Black Rep aces August Wilson's Radio Golf

Feb 27, 2008 at 4:00 am
We're deep into the second act of Radio Golf — no, scratch that. This ceased being a play 40 minutes ago. This is real life, those are real people up there, but for whatever reason, they don't notice us watching them. We're in Harmond Wilks' redevelopment office, which is nestled in Pittsburgh's rundown Hill District. Harmond, the black man who would be Pittsburgh's next mayor, was born here but now he's of another world, one where multimillion-dollar corporate deals, golf and grand political ambitions are merely tools of the trade. And under the twin gazes of Tiger Woods and Martin Luther King Jr., Harmond's being schooled by Sterling Johnson, a streetwise handyman who's never left the Hill save for a stint in jail. "If you scream, no one listens. But if you whisper, people can't help but turn around," Sterling tells the beleaguered candidate, who's on the brink of being undone professionally and personally by the very tools that got him to this point.

With Radio Golf, the tenth and final piece of his play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, August Wilson shows that he has a rough, loud, persistent and most gorgeous whisper. Director Lorna Littleway and a phenomenal cast have given a texture and a timbre to Wilson's voice that bewitches and dazzles — and inspires. How often do you leave the theater feeling not only that you've been transformed, but that you — you — could transform the world? The Black Rep's production of Radio Golf is a valedictory for the last century and a rallying cry for this one.

Andre Sills brings the perfect blend of pomposity and affability to Harmond. He has the florid cadence of a man who practices speeches in the bathroom mirror, and he expounds on the loyalty of dogs with the same gravitas he employs while rhapsodizing about urban renewal. Molded by his father to achieve a vaguely defined greatness, Harmond believes wholeheartedly in "the plan." But he doesn't really have much sense of what "the plan" means, to him or to anyone else.

Harmond's mercenary business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Darryl Alan Reed), is far more pragmatic. A successful banker and a golf fanatic, Roosevelt measures life in terms of financial success. Reed plays Roosevelt with a salty shrewdness; he's a man who is painfully aware that he needs to have business cards while on the golf course lest white people assume he's a caddy. But the money, in great loads of it, is Roosevelt's reward for such slights, so he weathers them. He and Harmond stand to reap huge dividends once they raze the Hill District and rebuild it as a modern retail and residential community. All they have left to do is destroy one dilapidated house, 1839 Wiley Avenue, the onetime home of Aunt Esther. Astute Wilson students will recognize the home as the spiritual locus of the Hill District, but even a first-timer senses that this house is the identity of the neighborhood — and also the soul of black America.

That soul's paladin is Sterling, played with bluff affability by A.C. Smith. Proud, and sensitive about appearing dumb, Sterling takes great pains to explain to Harmond that there are no shades of gray in matters of the soul. He and Roosevelt fight The Argument — what's a negro, what's a nigger — with volcanic intensity, snuffing all the air out of the room. Neither wins. But both stand as men when it's over — able to live on and prove the other wrong. Their epic battle underlines the one flaw of Wilson's final play: the lack of a female perspective. As Harmond's wife, Mame, Bianca LaVerne Jones delivers a polished and engaging performance, but she's really only there to support Harmond. Jones and Sills have one warm and life-affirming scene together, but Mame has little bearing on the outcome of Radio Golf.

That outcome is decided by Harmond alone — alone being the key word. Free of the past, free of his father's expectations, free of guilt, free of all obligations except to his own heart, Harmond is ready to address the world. And you can't help but listen to him.