`Radio Golf' is on par with Wilson's legacy

CRITIC'S CORNER//THEATER

Center Stage production adds an interesting chapter to the late playwright's take on African-American life in America

Theater Review

March 30, 2006|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If there was any doubt about the distinctiveness of August Wilson's language and characters, or the breadth of his vision, a trip to Center Stage's production of Radio Golf should quell those doubts.

Radio Golf may not be the most exceptional chapter in Wilson's extraordinary decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th-century African-American life. But the play, which is expected to open on Broadway next year, contains rewarding reminders of the works that preceded it and of the greatness of their author, who died in October.

Director Kenny Leon's confident production -- arriving at Center Stage after stops in Los Angeles and Seattle -- showcases a cast of Wilson veterans who bring natural grace and powerful understanding to the playwright's poetic patois and characterizations. The eighth Wilson play that Center Stage has produced, Radio Golf should have no trouble winning audiences in Baltimore or New York.

Yet for all of its similarities to Wilson's earlier work -- the masterly constructed monologues, the references to characters in previous plays, the theme of honoring history -- Radio Golf also brings something new to the cycle. Set in 1997, it introduces a social class largely missing from the other plays.

Most of the characters in those plays are striving to hold their own. A former Negro Leagues baseball star ekes out a living as a sanitation worker in Fences (set in the 1950s); an ex-con struggles to support his family in King Hedley II (1980s). And urban renewal threatens the denizens of a neighborhood diner in Two Trains Running (1960s) and a gypsy cab station in Jitney (1970s).

In Radio Golf, however, the protagonists -- a mayoral hopeful and his business partner -- are the ones behind the urban renewal.

At the end of the 20th century, Wilson's characters are firmly planted in the upper middle class. The mayoral hopeful, Harmond Wilks, is the scion of a real estate family, and his partner, Roosevelt Hicks, is a bank vice president.

Both men appear dedicated to giving something back to the community.

They are planning to build a multi-million-dollar apartment complex, complete with a health center -- not to mention Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and Whole Foods -- in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Rocky Carroll's self-assured Harmond and James A. Williams' eager-but-anxious Roosevelt think their only worry is that federal funding is dependent on having the area declared "blighted." Then they meet Elder Joseph Barlow.

A seemingly crazed codger, Old Joe refuses to vacate a house slated for demolition. Anthony Chisholm portrays Joe with a low, raspy voice that makes his speeches sound like a cross between parables and maniacal ravings.

His house isn't just any old house. It's the former home of Aunt Ester, the three-century-old seer mentioned in some of the other plays and seen on stage in Gem of the Ocean set in 1904. Aunt Ester was the same age as the history of slavery in this country. Tearing down her house could mean denying the past -- a past that turns unexpectedly personal for Harmond.

The play's title refers to a radio program that Roosevelt hosts, giving golfing tips over the air. The program is an indication of the extent to which this social climbing, over-extended character is fooling himself.

You can't demonstrate golf on the radio, and you can't get rich quick without paying a price. In this case, a shady white businessman has made Roosevelt a partner in a radio station to qualify for minority status. Roosevelt is so fixated on success, he can't see that he's being used.

Harmond, on the other hand, is driven by principles and fueled by anger. By the end of the play, Harmond's principles may seem out of whack -- even to his devoted wife (Denise Burse).

But the claim that he has staked in his community runs deeper than any urban renewal project, and he has done so at great personal and professional risk. Carroll brings intensity and subtlety to the changes his character undergoes.

There's one other character in Radio Golf -- a construction worker named Sterling Johnson (who also shows up in Two Trains Running). A former schoolmate of Harmond's, Sterling has had a much tougher life, but he has also managed to make his way in the world.

Sometimes menacing, sometimes a philosopher, and sometimes both at once, Sterling embodies a tricky combination of traits, skillfully conveyed by John Earl Jelks.

As much as Old Joe, Sterling is the catalyst that causes the change in Harmond.

Designer David Gallo's set situates Radio Golf in the midst of a decaying neighborhood. Interiors with boarded-up windows and doors are above and on both sides of Harmond and Roosevelt's office.

Three decades earlier, the abandoned restaurant on one side of the office could have been the setting for Two Trains.

We don't know what's going to become of Harmond Wilks after Radio Golf ends. August Wilson was too savvy a playwright to tie up all the loose ends -- even in the final play of his magnum opus.

But we come away with an appreciation and respect for his last, complex protagonist. He's a character who has learned one of Wilson's greatest lessons -- that you can't forge the future without accepting the past.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

Radio Golf. Through April 30 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. $10-$65. 410-332-0033 or centerstage.org

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