Race, Politics and Ambition Clash in Radio Golf at African American Repertory Theater

Hassan El-Amin and Vince McGill tee up fine performances in August Wilson's Radio Golf at AART.EXPAND
Hassan El-Amin and Vince McGill tee up fine performances in August Wilson's Radio Golf at AART.
Buddy Myers

The smartest man in Radio Golf isn’t the man with money. That’s just one of the home truths in August Wilson’s final play in his epic 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle. African American Repertory Theatre’s strong production of Radio Golf benefits from sharp, well-directed performances by five hometown actors who click with Wilson’s elegant but earthy dialogue. This is the last show in the Wyly Theatre’s Elevator Series of plays performed by smaller companies in the intimate sixth-floor studio space.

Wilson completed Radio Golf just before he died in 2005. It’s a good play, but a slighter one in scope compared with others in the Pittsburgh Cycle, lacking the mythic style of King Hedley II or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Set in the 1990s, Radio Golf is a morality tale about how, as the song says, them that’s got shall have and them that’s not shall lose. The losers in this play are the good guys, though. Their souls are intact even if their hearts are broken and pockets are empty.

Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District sits on the verge of gentrification and real estate developer Harmond Wilks (played by AART co-founder and under-used leading man Vince McGill) plans to get rich while launching a mayoral campaign that casts him as a hero of the working class. Harmond and fast-talking business partner Roosevelt Hicks (Adam A. Anderson) need city officials to declare the Hill “blighted” so they can qualify for millions in federal funds. When the call finally comes, they dance around the office shouting “Blight! Blight!”

Blocks of old homes will make way for 10-story apartment buildings, Whole Foods and Starbucks, if everything goes right. “The blight is good for everybody,” Harmond says, with no sense of irony. Says Roosevelt, “This is the big time. Nothing but blue skies.”

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The cloud on their silver lining, however, is a disruptive senior citizen named Elder Joseph Barlow (Hassan El-Amin, a member of Dallas Theater Center’s resident acting company, finally getting a meaty role). He bursts into Harmond’s office to announce that he’s restoring his family home at 1839 Wiley, a once-grand mansion that Harmond bought in a city auction of decrepit houses. If you know the Wilson canon, you’ll recognize the address as belonging to “Aunt Ester,” the 349-year-old former slave at the center of Gem of the Ocean.

Old Joe seems a bit unhinged but it turns out he’s right when he claims that Harmond doesn’t legally own the house that’s scheduled to be razed. A paperwork screw-up is revealed. Then Joe and Harmond discover they have family connections. Can fancy new buildings co-exist around a relic of Pittsburgh’s past? Of course not.

Countering Harmond and Roosevelt’s inflated rhetoric of business deals and political aspirations is the common-sense talk of another character, a house painter and handyman named Sterling Johnson (played by director Benard Cummings, stepping in just fine for an ailing Artist Thornton Jr. at the performance reviewed).When Harmond’s wife (Regina Washington), who has political ambitions for herself, is stumped for a snappy campaign slogan for her husband, Sterling suggests “Hold me to it.” It goes up on the posters.

Playing golf, playing politics or high-dollar banking and real estate — all require following the white man’s rules, says the playwright throughout Radio Golf. He gives Sterling the rousing second-act speech. No matter how well someone like Harmond or Roosevelt, both successes financially, play these games, the white establishment will keep changing the rules that black people will then have to relearn. He calls the greedy Roosevelt “a negro,” willing to be used as “blackface” to help white businessmen get rich off minority communities.
“Negroes got blind-eyetis,” says the poor but wise Sterling. “A dog knows it’s a dog. A cat knows it’s a cat. But a negro don’t know he’s a negro. He thinks he’s a white man.”

Radio Golf could just as accurately be about Dallas, where historic buildings disappear overnight to be replaced by leviathans of “luxury.” Fortunes have been made from “blight” here, too. August Wilson’s plays all find great drama in the clash between past and present, the loosening grasp of history and the forward reach to some better, more lucrative future (for a few). Too rarely is there the embrace of enlightenment. But only the handyman knows that.

Radio Golf continues through June 7 in the 6th floor Studio Theatre, Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Tickets, $25 (with student rush available), 214-871-5000.


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