Turn it up: Director Ron OJ Parson dials in to August Wilson’s ‘Radio Golf’
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Director Ron OJ Parson likes to leave blood on the stage. Gushing crimson or flaking burnt-maroon, it’s a signature that dates back to his third grade debut in the theater.
“I can’t remember the title, but I remember my line,” Parson said of the grade school play that was a tiny harbinger of years to come. “ ‘I am Mars. The red planet. Red like blood.’ Ever since, I always try to work blood into every production I do.”
Parson’s current production is August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” now in previews at Hyde Park’s Court Theatre. It marks the 25th Wilson play Parson has directed, his seventh at Court. The 1997-set installment in Wilson’s epic, play-a-decade “Century Cycle” follows Harmond Wilks and Roosevelt Hicks, two ambitious African-American developers with big plans for Pittsburgh’s struggling, African-American Hill District.
When: To Sept. 30
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
As in all of Wilson’s plays, the characters of “Radio Golf” are surrounded by the struggles and powers of their ancestors, keenly embodied by the ancient, mythic, mystic Aunt Ester. Ester’s history and wisdom informs everybody on stage. Her world is faces oblivion in “Radio Golf.” There’s no place for an old woman’s ramshackle home among the Whole Foods, Starbucks and upscale apartments Harmond and Roosevelt have planned. Ester’s house is slated for demolition.
“All of [Wilson’s] plays tie in the ancestors,” said Parson. “I direct from a spiritual point of view, and if you’re a spiritual person in African-American culture, you know that the spirit of Africa is in everything in us and about us. Our ancestors need a voice. Wilson gives them that.”
“Radio Golf” is set 21 years ago, but its exploration of the impact of gentrification’s impact on a cash-strapped community is as timely as the looming mid-term elections, Parson said.
“It’s relevant now because of what’s going on politically now,” he said. “You have a black president and you think, ‘OK, now things are going to be different from now on.’ But now, things are going backward. They’re trying to make America white again. There is a new aggressiveness, this push to ‘take back the country.’ Gentrification is part of that: people trying to take back what they feel is theirs.”
Ron OJ Parson addresses the actors on the first day of rehearsals for August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at Court Theatre. | joe mazza_brave lux photoParson has dealt with aggression for before. Sometimes it’s overt, like when he was working as a telemarketer 1970s and ‘80s. “I’m asking this guy questions about [Walter] Mondale when he says ‘I smell a n—– burning in the woodpile,” Parson said, using the full n-word. “And I’m like, ‘Excuse me sir, I’m just try-‘ and he said it again. And then he hung up.”
Parson learned early the urgency of fighting racism, be it on the phone or on stage or on the frontlines of a rally. When his parents divorced, Parson’s cousin, Freedom Rider Jerry Moore, helped his 13-year-old nephew navigate suddenly troubled waters.
“He’s the reason I am who I am,” Parson said of Moore. “After my parents divorced, he took me under his wing. “ Moore died in 2015. “He’ll be in that rehearsal room,” Parson said.
At this point in his career Parson (who prefers “to remain enigmatic about my age in the press”) has the resources of some of the country’s mightiest theatrical institutions behind him. The Buffalo native is a resident artist at Court, a “creative partner” at the Goodman, an associate artist at Writers Theatre and Teatro Vista and a company member at Timeline.
He remembers what it’s like to create with minimal resources. As a student at the University of Michigan and young actor-director in Michigan and then Chicago, he wasn’t happy with the dearth of opportunities for African-American artists. So he created his own companies including the Back Alley Players and Chicago’s Onyx Theatre Company. Onyx turned out one of hits of the 1995 season with “East Texas Hot Links,” but like the Back Alley Players, the company didn’t stick. “We had passion, but we didn’t have a long-term plan,” Parson said.
“Radio Golf” dramatizes a parallel struggle, although Wilson’s play centers on the fight for inclusion in the business world rather than the theater world. Parson points to one of “Radio Golf’s” monologues, a passage that describes fighting from the margins for a center seat. “He’s talking about how you work really hard. You get to the center. But once you get there, the center changes. The rules change. And you’re back on the edge of things again. Because they don’t really want you there, in the center,” he said.
For all the abundance of his career, Parson is dubious about claiming success.
“Making it. What does that even mean? Being able to make a living doing what you love? Being respected in your field? You can make it in your profession but do you make it through dealing with depression and loneliness? That stuff can still catch up with you,” he said.
It’s almost impossible to read about August Wilson without encountering comparisons to Shakespeare, both in terms of epic character arcs and poetic language. Parson brings his own deeply rooted sense of poetry to “Radio Golf.”
“I write poems,” he said. “When I’m in love, I write love poems. When I’m depressed I write dark poems. I’m not involved with anyone right now, so the love poems are in the trunk somewhere. I wrote one when [Court] did ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead.’ We hung it in the lobby.”
Diversifying the demographic in that lobby is a challenge Parson is winning. “In the past 12 years, Court audiences have gone from about 5 percent people of color to about 40 percent people of color,” he said. In “Radio Golf” — as in real life — he sees a thread of resilience and hope.
“I feel like what’s happened [since the 2016 presidential election] has rallied people together,” he said. “Like Aunt Ester’s house rallies people together in ‘Radio Golf.’ The community has been fighting back.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.