Commerce faces off against conscience in August Wilson's "Radio Golf," the last play written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (and Capitol Hill resident) before his death in October. This work, now running at Seattle Repertory Theatre in the Seattle Center, fulfills Wilson's promise to write a play chronicling the African-American experience during every decade of the 20th century.
As he did in all but one of his dramas, in "Radio Golf" he frames his metaphor in Pittsburgh's rundown Hill District, where he grew up. But instead of his usual crew of socially powerless characters, Wilson mixes a trio of affluent African Americans along with two neighborhood eccentrics more typical of his theatrical fodder.
The time is 1997. Harmond Wilks III, a successful property developer, plans to run for mayor of Pittsburgh on the Democratic ticket. Although Harmond grew up in the Hill District, he no longer lives there. But he wants to run his campaign out of his old neighborhood. After all, his father was a scion of local real estate, and Harmond has faithfully followed in his footsteps. Plus, Harmond and his partner and longtime friend Roosevelt Hicks have a plan to revitalize the economically depressed neighborhood. Once the Hill is given "blight" status, the deal stands to make millions.
But when Elder Joe Barlow shows up claiming to own a 285-year-old house sitting smack dab in the middle of the proposed building site, Harmond's American Dream begins to unravel. And when he discovers the development company obtained the property illegally, his sense of honor forces him to look into his own soul. The doubt he sees reflected there blurs his plans for the future.
As Harmond, Rocky Carroll gives a superb performance as the charismatic developer and mayoral hopeful. Meticulously turned out in hand-tailored togs, Carroll personifies the polished politico. He endows Harmond with believability and a touch of egotism along with integrity and vulnerability - and ultimately, passion. As the play progresses, you feel Harmond's frustration as he faces the life-changing decision of progress versus heritage and history, a subject dear to Wilson's playwriting heart. Carroll's power peaks as he delivers Harmond's aria-like soliloquy about how blacks are perceived in our society.
Meanwhile, banker Roosevelt Hicks, enthusiastically played for comedy relief by James A. Williams, would gladly sell his soul for a piece of the action. When Roosevelt isn't talking about making money, he's obsessing over golf. For him, the sport symbolizes acceptance in the white man's world. He even allows himself to be used by an unethical white entrepreneur in the purchase of a radio station. Roosevelt acquires part ownership and his own radio show - about golf, of course - while the white investor reaps big profits. So Roosevelt goes ballistic when Harmond proposes sparing Old Joe's home from the wrecking ball.
As always, Wilson's drama inhabits a theatrical neighborhood a-sprawl with pain and laced with humor. His characters spew poetic dialogue like musical riffs, raw with power and symphonic strife. And like Shakespeare, Wilson endows his fools with poetic wisdom. Sterling Johnson, played with wily panache by John Earl Jelks, works as an on-again, off-again painter and carpenter. The under-educated ex-con is something of a philosopher. He once robbed a bank because he wanted to know how it felt to have money. When Harmond's golf clubs are stolen from his car trunk, Sterling buys them on the street for $20 and tries to sell them back to Harmond.
Sterling constantly challenges Harmond's political views in a series of provocative soliloquies. But when he brings up Harmond's twin brother Raymond, who died in Vietnam, Sterling strikes a sensitive nerve. Later, in revealing speeches about his father and twin, Harmond admits that his idealistic brother forged his own path in life while he, Harmond, has always followed his father's plan. Until now.
Elder Joe Barlow reigns as "Radio Golf"'s mystic. The gravelly-voiced Anthony Chisholm portrays the ne'er-do-well wanderer and sage with crafty vigor. Old Joe cleverly frames his comments in anecdotes from his past, including a very amusing story about being arrested for walking a dog. But one thing remains clear: He's not about to give up his claim on the house at 1839 Wylie.
Denise Burse, as Mame, is very much the professional equal of her husband Harmond. Beautifully dressed, intelligent and savvy, she's spearheading his political campaign while simultaneously orchestrating a position for herself as the governor's personal representative. Although Burse endows Mame with drive, sophistication and vision, she lacks the softness Harmond describes when he explains why he fell in love with her. Perhaps it's the price she paid for her success. Or perhaps it's the way her character is underwritten, typical in the roles Wilson penned for women.
As the bluesy dissonance of Kathryn Bostic's original music sounds, set designer David Gallo's shabby-looking neighborhood shows the ravages of neglect and decay. You see empty buildings with broken windows haphazardly boarded up, while broken bricks and random support beams mark the place where walls once stood. Inside Harmond's office there's the typical phone and fax, as well as a bulletin board boasting a poster of Tiger Woods side-by-side one of Martin Luther King, Jr and the latest rendering of the development project.
Wilson leaves a rich theatrical legacy. Not just a rundown neighborhood full of lost dreams and defiant ramblers, but a changing mirror of the African American struggle for freedom and dignity. As Sterling tells Harmond, "I've been going through back doors all my life."
The ending of "Radio Golf" strays from typical Wilson fare. Usually someone dies violently just before the curtain falls. But not this time. Out of the Hill District rubble emerges a new kind of hero. One who has reclaimed his honor and discovered his deepest and truest self, even though it means sacrificing a dream.
Over the past 23 years, Wilson has introduced us to his wonderful but flawed characters. He's bared their secrets, weaknesses, triumphs, failures, violence and heartbreaks. And he's provided laughter along with the tears, hoping that audiences would not only recognize the humanity of African Americans but remove the emotional shackles of racism in America.
"Radio Golf" runs Tuesday to Sunday through Feb. 18 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, tickets $10-$46, 443-2222. There will be a special memorial for August Wilson on Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. with the artists from "Radio Golf" as well as other special guests. The memorial is free and open to the public.[[In-content Ad]]