- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

“Radio Golf,” the final installment in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle depicting black life throughout the 20th century and completed before his death from liver cancer in October, finds the playwright in fine form, wielding words with the virtuoso ease of a Tiger Woods golf stroke.

If you have an image of Mr. Wilson’s dramas as being tough, rewarding slogs through acres of fertile verbiage and characters etched in darkness and pain, “Radio Golf” will be a radiant surprise.

First, the play is funny — laugh-out-loud funny. Mr. Wilson’s “‘90s play” (set in 1997) is looser and jokier than what you normally expect from the playwright. His pervasive themes of racism and oppression both blatant and accreted are powerfully present but couched in humor. The characters and the dialogue convey a sense of euphoria and liberation, as if Mr. Wilson relaxed his pugilist stance and just let his backbone slip.

That is not to say “Radio Golf” lacks powerhouse moments. There still is plenty about which to be angry, and Mr. Wilson’s characters decry injustice and chronic mistreatment with guttural force. Everything from Oprah and gentrification to minority business breaks and the idolatry of black athletes comes under fire in “Radio Golf.” How different is expensive bling from slave chains? the playwright asks. Is playing golf just another way American blacks try to gain acceptance into the white man’s world?

“Radio Golf” also portrays a social class rarely seen in Mr. Wilson’s plays, although the neighborhood’s the same, Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Whereas “Fences” shows a former Negro League baseball star struggling to raise a family as a sanitation worker in the 1950s and “Two Trains Running” (the ‘60s play) charts the decline of a once-vibrant urban neighborhood through the ruminations of a group of loiterers in a sandwich shop, “Radio Golf” depicts wealthy, upper-class people striving to get richer and more powerful. Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll) is poised to run for mayor, and his strategy-loving wife, Mame (Denise Burse), is up for a gig as the governor’s press secretary. Harmond first hopes to make a big splash with his business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), and their urban redevelopment project.

The Bedford Hills project boasts a health center, a Starbucks and a Whole Foods supermarket. There’s also a rooftop garden and putting green, so residents of the posh apartment building won’t have to mingle with their ghetto neighbors. The plan is contingent on the federal government declaring the Hill District “blighted” so the area’s homes and boarded-up businesses can be razed.

Slated for the bulldozer is 1839 Wylie Ave., which veterans of Mr. Wilson’s plays will remember as the house of Aunt Esther, the neighborhood shaman and seer who is as old as slavery. The audience is so familiar with Aunt Esther, you almost want to cry out “Over my dead body” when you hear the news. Equally outraged is Elder Joe Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), who claims he owns the house and refuses to give it up. Barlow wavers precariously between crazed old coot and truth-speaker, but his parable-spouting presence causes a sea of change in Harmond’s mind. It starts to become personal, which we all know is the death knell for business decisions.

The bridge between the steady past and the go-getter future can be seen in the character of Sterling (the excellent John Earl Jelks), who appeared in “Two Trains Running.” Sterling is an itinerant construction worker with a tough past, who may not be as upwardly mobile as Harmond but lives his life with dignity and conviction.

The play’s title refers to a radio program emceed by Roosevelt, who gives smarmy golf tips over the airwaves. Golf doesn’t translate to the radio, and the show represents how far gone Roosevelt is in his social climbing. He’s overextended financially and spiritually, allowing himself to be used by a white executive looking for a patsy so he can get minority status. In other hands, the Roosevelt character could be insufferable, but Mr. Williams gives him such buckshot energy you can’t help but get carried away, too.

Mr. Carroll’s self-assured Harmond proves a solid foil to Mr. Williams’ rabbity eagerness. He smartly eschews the dramatic fireworks, going instead for control. Mr. Chisholm, whose rumbling voice and prophetlike ramblings make you think Barlow is touched with the gift of history, delivers the emotional wallop.

Director Kenny Leon’s assured direction brings out the brimming humor in “Radio Golf” and amplifies Mr. Wilson’s parting message of hope that black Americans will navigate the 21st century carrying their history and their stories with them as they face a world of emerging possibilities.

This sunlit message, though, is shaded by sadness. You can glimpse what direction Mr. Wilson was taking with “Radio Golf,” that mingling of humor and sorrow that was so alive, almost Chekhovian. With his majestic 10-cycle completed, he could relax a little, and his sense of release was tangible. We’ll never know where his writing would have taken us — or what happens to Aunt Esther’s house. I would like to think it lives within us, her front door painted bold-red and always open, bidding you to come on in and unburden your heart.

***1/2

WHAT: “Radio Golf” by August Wilson

WHERE: Centerstage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 30.

TICKETS: $10 to $65

PHONE: 410/382-0033

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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