- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

It’s no accident that the iconic, block-print image of Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks (an assured Walter Coppage) in Studio Theatre’s punchy production of “Radio Golf” bears a striking resemblance to the omnipresent Barack Obama presidential posters. “Radio Golf,” the final installment in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle depicting black life throughout the 20th century and completed just before his death in 2005, takes place in 1997 — long before Mr. Obama’s ascent to the presidency. In it, protagonist Wilks aspires to become Pittsburgh’s first black mayor, and his ambitions clash with an America still steeped in racism both subtle and institutionalized.

You can’t help but wonder what kind of play Mr. Wilson would have written had he lived to see the dreams of black Americans realized in the election of President Obama. You could assume it would be exultant, a further flowering of the loose style and euphoric humor seen in “Radio Golf,” rendered with a sincerity by director Ron Himes at Studio Theatre that does not completely capture the play’s dynamism — save for a ground-shaking performance by Frederick Strother as a griot in a crumbling community.

This is not Mr. Wilson’s finest play, but it could be his flat-out funniest. His pervasive themes of oppression and the importance of remembering history are powerfully present, as is the fertile verbiage, but this time couched in comedy.

That doesn’t mean “Golf” lacks powerhouse moments. 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. 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?

“Golf” takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — the setting of many of Mr. Wilson’s plays — and depicts wealthy, upper-class black people striving to become richer and more powerful.

Wilks’ wife, Mame (Deidra LaWan Starnes) is poised to become the governor’s press secretary. His social-climbing friend and business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Kim Sullivan) wants to be a radio magnate as well as head honcho for their urban-redevelopment project — a concept that would raze much of the Hill District to make way for Whole Foods, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble.

Nothing seems to stand in their way, except that one of the houses slated for demolition is 1839 Wylie Ave. — which fans of Mr. Wilson’s plays will remember as the home of Aunt Ester, the neighborhood healer who was as old as slavery. Elder Joe Barlow (Mr. Strother) and itinerant construction worker Sterling (Erik Kilpatrick) are resolute that the house be saved. The laconic, truth-speaking Barlow becomes the conduit for Wilks between the painful past and the go-getter future.

Studio’s “Golf” provides a steady flame rather than the comic, angry cackle you desire. This laid-back approach emphasizes 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 limitless possibilities.

★★★

WHAT: “Radio Golf” by August Wilson

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 28.

TICKETS: $34 to $61

PHONE: 202/332-3300

WEB SITE: www.studiotheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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