In August Wilson’s Hill District in the waning years of the 20th century, “hope” and “change” are mutually exclusive ideals. The forces of gentrification are sweeping through, and black men born and raised in the neighborhood cheer when the area is officially designated as “blighted.” That means $5 million from the federal government to raze the Hill District and turn it into a Reaganite “shining city on a hill,” complete with a Starbucks, a Barnes & Noble and a Whole Foods. In order for hope to survive, this is a change that has to be averted.
When: Through Sept. 30
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
“Radio Golf” is the late Wilson’s final play, and the last installment in his century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle. While it’s not in the upper echelons of his catalogue — Olympian heights that very few (if any) American playwrights have matched — it still resonates with same anger, love and cynical humor that make his plays seem more like sacred texts than play scripts. Director Ron OJ Parson is an experienced interpreter of Wilson’s chronicles of African-American life, and this production is yet another vibrant, rough-hewn gem.
Set in 1997, the play’s fulcrum is the soul of a single man: Harmond Wilks (Allen Gilmore), a Hill District real estate agent and brand new Pittsburgh mayoral candidate who is spearheading the development with his partner and friend, Roosevelt Hicks (James Vincent Meredith). Harmond’s wife Mame (Ann Joseph), meanwhile, is running his mayoral campaign and then is poised to become the governor’s new press representative. Nothing but blue skies, indeed.
Seeking to rebrand The Hill District into “Bedford Hills,” the men’s plan hits a snag with the arrival of Elder Joseph Barlow (Alfred H. Wilson), an irascible coot cum wise old sage whose house at 1839 Wylie is slated to be torn down. As they wrangle over who legally owns the house, Harmond undergoes a crisis of conscience. He stops imagining what they’re going to build and starts worrying about what they might destroy instead.
Wilson devotees will recognize that address as the longtime home of Aunt Ester, the spiritual center in Wilson’s 10-play cycle. Though she has finally passed away and is only mentioned on stage a handful of times, her presence hangs heavy over the proceedings. On opening night, many audience members laughed when Barlow recalls asking Aunt Ester her age and her answering that she was 349 years old. What they probably didn’t realize is: she wasn’t joking. Tearing down that house means tearing down yet another connection to Ester’s legacy. the embodiment of African-American culture, history, and memory.
That isn’t the only connection that the characters in “Radio Golf” share to Wilson’s other works — particularly to “Gem of the Ocean,” his penultimate play and this show’s matching turn-of-the-century bookend. But Wilson, who was clearly ahead of his time when it came to managing a “shared universe” franchise, does not make this reading required. “Radio Golf” can be enjoyed as a comedic drama on its own terms, even if it’s ALL CAPS thematic statements work a bit better when viewed as the conclusion of an epic saga.
The play pits Roosevelt and Mame on one side of Harmond’s divide with Barlow and local handyman — or self-proclaimed “one-man union” — Sterling Johnson (James T. Alfred) on the other. A recurring theme in Wilson’s work is that “success” in America is allowed only on white people’s terms. So it is that Roosevelt is obsessed with playing golf (Meredith displays a great putting game) and crows when he’s brought in on a radio station deal in order to secure a minority tax credit. Johnson, on the other hand, refuses to play these games, and angrily denounces Hicks with language best left out of this review.
Wilson was an undisputed master of talk. His long, languorous plays build to climactic oratory but enjoy reveling in everyday yak while they get there. Alfred H. Wilson’s Barlow is the show’s highlight, puttering back and forth with his odd stories, talking about 10 years ago like it was yesterday. It’s a bracing rejoinder to the blandly sanitized dialogue between Harmond, Mame, and Roosevelt (who at least cusses regularly).
As Harmond, Gilmore has a melancholy that chafes against the character’s constant optimism, a sadness that is the mark of a good man in a bad world. The most chilling sorts of tragedies are those where the hero does the right thing. “Radio Golf” isn’t a tragedy, per se, but it plays by those rules. Wilson simply has a different idea of what it means to win — and to lose.
Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.