'Radio Golf' Finally Comes To the Fore in Washington
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
It's almost too delicious, imagining what story for the stage might have been sparked in August Wilson by the phenomenon of Barack Obama. Wilson died in 2005 at age 60, not long after completing his monumental life's work, the 10-drama cycle that unfurled 20th-century black America like a flag of 1,000 vivid stripes.
We can, at least, go by "Radio Golf," which is far from Wilson's best play, but nonetheless stands as a bracing and prescient pinpointing of a next phase of African American life: the flowering of black American aspiration. True to Wilson's nature, "Radio Golf," set in 1997, is wryly skeptical of the chances of success for a black man seeking to rise in a polyglot society -- especially one that hasn't managed to put racism to bed.
How, you find yourself musing, would Obama's ascension have rewritten Wilson's prescription?
Studio Theatre is mounting Washington's first full-run production (at last) of "Radio Golf," the final play in the Wilson cycle; it was presented in staged-reading form a year ago, as part of the Kennedy Center's terrific, month-long offering of all 10 plays. And if director Ron Himes's staging for Studio is merely a workmanlike treatment of a middle-range work, it features an exceptional, pivotal performance by Frederick Strother, playing a stubborn codger who pricks the conscience of the younger character in the piece who seems to have the future in his sails.
Like all but one of the works in the cycle, "Radio Golf" takes place in the Hill District, the storied Pittsburgh enclave where the Wilson century turbulently unfolds. The Hill, having hit rock bottom, is being primed for urban renewal -- and a federal infusion of cash -- by Harmond Wilks (Walter Coppage) and his bourgeois, golf-obsessed business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Kim Sullivan). Local royalty by virtue of his deep roots in the community, Harmond is now engaged in a run to be mayor, an ambition fueled by his wife (Deidra LaWan Starnes), who herself is on the verge of a big job in the governor's office.
In seeking to gentrify the Hill, however, the Wilkses discover that the past refuses to be swept away like so much rubble. A particular stately old house stands in the path of the bulldozers, the same house in which the Wilson cycle began, in the play set in 1904, "Gem of the Ocean." And though Wilks's company bought the house at auction, the circumstances prove ethically questionable and politically damaging, after Strother's Elder Joseph Barlow turns up with a legal claim on the property.
Elder Joseph's assertion forms the narrative center of "Radio Golf," which leads to some funny moments; in Strother's hangdog countenance, the character comes across as a first-rate comic philosopher. But it also contributes to an overly moralizing tone in the piece, a transparent indication that the play seeks to impart a lesson, about the need to honor the past, to remember. There is nothing wrong, of course, with that vital idea. It's just that Wilson developed it so much more subtly and persuasively in his greater achievements, like "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
Starnes offers a solid turn as a woman on a mission, and Sullivan gives surprising heft to a character for whom Wilson has little compassion: Roosevelt is so keen on making a buck that he hands over his dignity to a white executive who wants to use him as a minority front man. (The title refers to the cynical venture that enriches him.) Something, meanwhile, remains underdeveloped in Coppage's Harmond. The plot hinges on the character's enlightenment, the growth from one who merely sees his own opportunity to someone who can invest in the fortunes of an entire community.
In this production, however, Harmond's a little too Zen. (It's interesting that on this occasion, the actors pronounce his name Har-MOND, with the accent on the second syllable, as if to underline his refined status.) You never get the feeling that Coppage might muster much of Harmond's outrage, or, for that matter, desire the rewards, material and psychic, that scaling the elite can deliver. As a result, the actor's metamorphosis lacks dramatic crackle.
Set designer Daniel Conway impressively conjures the office in which Roosevelt and the Wilkses massage their dreams. On the wall, Roosevelt hangs a poster of Tiger Woods, a modern sports hero who embodies the results-oriented ethos that much of the world admires, and that Wilson wants us to question. That just around the corner would emerge a black figure even more iconic than Woods suggests that the next century might have been tailor-made for the likes of Wilson, too.
Radio Golf, by August Wilson. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Reggie Ray; sound, Neil McFadden. With Erik Kilpatrick. About 2 hours.