August Wilson’s epic 10-play Century Cycle is the most visionary American playwriting endeavor of the past 50 years, and arguably in the 100 years before that. Even the man widely considered America’s greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, only completed two plays in the 11-play cycle he had planned.
In Wilson’s cycle, he chronicled the African-American experience in each of the 20th century’s decades, yielding two Pulitzer Prizes (for The Piano Lesson and Fences) and numerous other awards. The last in the cycle, Radio Golf, set in 1997, was his final play to write, and he died of cancer after it premiered in 2005 at Yale Repertory Theatre (it moved to Broadway in 2007).
Judging from African American Repertory Theater’s first-rate area premiere of Radio Golf, this play could move up the ladder in amount of productions it receives compared to the other plays (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone remains the masterpiece of the series; Fences is probably the most produced). The play was finished more than a decade ago but feels especially timely, on several levels.
It’s set in the office of Harmond Wilks (Vince McGill), a businessman with political aspirations in Pittsburgh’s Hill District (the setting of most of the cycle), where he and his young hotshot colleague, Roosevelt Hicks (Adam A. Anderson), are planning a commercial and residential development in the gentrifying neighborhood. That is until Elder Joseph Barlow (Hassan El-Amin), a longtime resident, lays claim to an old home that will be torn down for the development.
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Roosevelt is not swayed by the potential loss of history, nor is Harmond’s wife, Mame Wilks (Regina Washington, fantastic as always), but Harmond changes course when he learns more about how he and Joseph are connected. Hint: It involves the recurring Wilson character of Ester, the former slave who is more than 200 years old when the cycle begins (with Gem of the Ocean) at the turn of the 20th century, and who is talked about but not seen.
The story is on the surface about the arguments for and against gentrification, but more pressingly, it’s the first of Wilson’s plays that presents solidly upwardly middle-class black characters, who, as the great critic John Lahr notes in his introduction to the box set of the 10 plays, have moved “over the decades from property to personhood” and beyond. In Radio Golf, there’s not just a division between generations but between economic classes.
One passage of dialogue, with two characters arguing the difference between variations of the word “negro,” could come from any current comment thread of a story related to the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Wilson’s is more poetic, of course, and thankfully devoid of the overt racism we now see. It also touches on other current debates, such as voting turnout among African-Americans.
Radio Golf is the final entry in the inaugural year of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project in the Wyly Theatre (it’s interesting that the potentially demolished house in the play is at 1839 Wylie Ave.).
Directed by Benard Cummings (who also played the role of handyman Sterling Johnson on opening weekend due to illness by cast member Artist Thornton Jr.), this is one of AART’s best productions yet.
That has much to do with the powerful trifecta of McGill, Anderson and El-Amin, each layering characters who are filled with dramatic heft. El-Amin is especially heartbreaking.
Cummings, as director, lets the action simmer until the boiling point, with a beautiful, emotional build throughout. Although Cummings had the script in hand for the performance reviewed, since he stepped in at the last minute, he still gave a compelling performance.
Scenic designer Bradley Gray thoughtfully backdrops the office with images of the old ’hood, such as neighborhood business signs and, center stage, the red door at 1839 Wylie, all beautifully lit by lighting designer Janet Berka.
She may have missed an opportunity by not highlighting the door at the very end, but at that point, the audience had already had its breath taken away.