Radio Golf is the last of August Wilson's ten plays about the black experience in the twentieth century, most of them seen through the prism of Pittsburgh's Hill District; he died the year he completed it. With this production, the Denver Center Theatre Company will have done the entire series, all under the direction of Israel Hicks. Together the plays represent an extraordinary tapestry of anger, humor, love, manipulation, fear and pleasure; watching them over the years, you could see certain strands — themes, characters — winding their way through, repeating and disappearing, making a fierce, bright pattern. Because of the breadth of his vision and the brilliant language with which he expressed it, Wilson was in many ways the voice of his people — and the depth of his insight made him a universal voice as well. As Synge did for the Irish, he took the familiar language of those around him and transmuted it into something that had never existed before, something at once historically accurate, entirely new and profoundly itself.
For the most part, Radio Golf lacks the jazzy, bluesy music we expect from Wilson; there are only a few moments of pure verbal magic. Critics have posited that the playwright didn't have time to put the piece through his usual lengthy process of revision — but the wisdom and passion are still there, along with the rich web of allusion.
Two of the main characters are Ivy League-educated, tough, successful moneymen — unusual types for Wilson protagonists. Harmond Wilks is a real-estate developer intent on acquiring federal funds to renew the Hill area. He plans for a large apartment building, complete with the requisite chain stores: Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Starbucks. With the help of his ambitious wife, Mame, he's also running for mayor. His partner — and fellow golf enthusiast — is Roosevelt Hicks, bank vice president and part owner of a radio station. Standing in the two men's way, almost literally, is the history of the Hill, represented by the ancient house that once belonged to Aunt Ester. In Wilson's work, Aunt Ester is the centuries-old custodian of the black American experience, a matriarchal figure, guide and washer of souls. The current inhabitant of Aunt Ester's house is Elder Joseph Barlow, and he has no intention of leaving. In fact, he's hired Sterling Johnson, an itinerant worker, to help him paint the place. What follows is a battle for the soul of the Hill — and the soul of Wilks himself.
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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 25, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
This production, which is full of intelligence and vitality, raises many echoes. There is only one unfamiliar face on stage, that of Darryl Alan Reed, who gives us a believably ambitious and self-assured Roosevelt Hicks. All of the other cast members have graced previous plays from the cycle and, like Wilson's repeating motifs, their presence adds interest and complexity. Kim Staunton, who plays Mame with an intriguing mix of strength and vulnerability, was Black Mary in the Denver Center's Gem of the Ocean a couple of years ago; when one of the characters turns out to have a surprising relationship with Mary, I found myself watching Staunton's eyes, seeing in them a haunted tenderness. The other familiar presences are Terrence Riggins, who brings power and magnetism to the role of Wilks, communicating a passion for rectitude as strong as the character's longing for power, and Charles Weldon, embodying Barlow with beautifully self-effacing conviction. And then there's Harvy Blanks as Sterling Johnson, who, whether he's needling or wheedling, playing the buffoon or cutting off audience laughter with sudden rage-filled dignity, provides the play's moral center.
Radio Golf is about time and loss and the meaning of place. It's also about change. The script contains several references to a black man's chances of winning high office that gain piquancy from our surprising recent history. Time outpaces our understanding, and I couldn't help wondering what August Wilson would have made of Barack Obama, this cool, hip, brilliant figure who seems to carry the weight of black American history so lightly. I thought of Jesse Jackson, weeping for joy as Obama accepted the presidency, and the mindless pundits who insisted that Jackson's style of activism — his way of being black — was now passé, as if identity were a coat one could slip on and off at will, as if Jackson's life had nothing to do with Obama's triumph. Radio Golf brings Wilson's twentieth century to a close and stills his powerful voice. He leaves us with the knowledge that we must honor our past and carry it with us into the unknowable future. Because to fail is to lose our humanity.