Theater Review: Radio Golf by August Wilson

Radio Golf. By August Wilson. June 8-June 29, 2013. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. 937 Liberty Avenue. [http://www.pghplaywrights.com/] Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Wali Jamal, Mark Clayton Southers, and Art Terry.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

August Wilson undertook the ambitious project of writing a play reflecting African-American life for each decade of the twentieth century. Shortly before he died at 60 he finished the last and latest play: Radio Golf, set in 1995. Inspired by Wilson, Mark Clayton Southers undertook the project of producing all of the plays. Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre’s current production of Radio Golf is the capstone of both projects, and, like nine of the plays, is set firmly in Pittsburgh.

What could be more boring than golf on the radio? I once ate in a place where the TV was tuned to a golf tournament. For the entire time I ate lunch, I’m sure, the cameras followed one of the contenders beating grass in the rough looking for his ball. Now imagine that without visual interest. And certainly Wilson wasn’t any more interested in golf on the radio than I, which is a measure of his distance from the character who is. (Behind that “certainly”—at a talkback, Chris Rawson, a scholar of Wilson, said that Wilson had frantically to rewrite Radio Golf to change the golf references, since he didn’t know anything about golf.)

I’d seen Radio Golf before, and thought then that it was less interesting than other of Wilson’s plays. But this production, in PPT’s intimate and somewhat hard-to-find space, is tense and moving. It redeems the play for me. The ensemble acting is excellent, and credit to Eileen J. Morris for creating dynamism among the players. Mark Southers’ Harmond Wilks, stolid at first, contrasts well with Chrystal Bates’ seductive warmth and Kevin Brown’s antic jiving. In Art Terry’s performance, Roosevelt Hicks’ exuberance allows us to have empathy with a character who might be merely a villain in lesser hands and with a lesser playwright. For one of Wilson’s strengths is that he doesn’t stack the deck, at least not completely. In earlier plays, his hard businessmen—West, Caesar Wilks—aren’t lovable, but they may just be right in turning away from sentimentality. The immersive nature of the intimate space with audience on three sides is amplified because most of the characters enter through a door from the audience’s side.

Who has said that all the persons of the dream are the dreamer? The power of the conflicts in Wilson’s plays must be that they externalize conflicts within him. Surely he had to shut the door on distractions and importunings in order to make his work, the monumental Pittsburgh Cycle.

I haven’t mentioned the language, the humor, the wonderful language of the man who started as a poet, the humor of signifying characters.

Pittsburgh people, and people near Pittsburgh, catch this production while you can.

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