Reviewed by Owen Perkins
“Politics is about symbolism,” mayoral hopeful Harmond Wilks tells his wife in the opening moments of Radio Golf. “Black people don’t vote, but they have symbolic weight.”
Wilks has based campaign headquarters on Pittsburgh’s blighted Hill District, the neighborhood both Wilks and playwright August Wilson hail from, a neighborhood now so rundown and threatening that Wilks is in danger of excluding the more cautious of the constituents he hopes to court.
His character should be familiar to the politically savvy — an astute candidate doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. But if the return to his roots is an attempt to fashion a narrative to drive his campaign at the play’s outset, his ability to internalize that instinctive grasp for his cultural past will prove to be the critical question hanging over him at the play’s climax.
Radio Golf marks the culminating entry in Wilson’s decade-by-decade telling of the African-American experience in the 20th century, a 26-year journey for the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Fences and The Piano Lesson and a 19-year commitment kept by director Israel Hicks and the Denver Center Theater Company to produce the entire cycle, a singular feat accomplished at no other theater on the globe.
Set in Pittsburgh, 1997, Radio Golf is rich with conflicting images, from Wilks and his redevelopment partner Roosevelt Hicks to the icons they both look to for respective inspiration: Martin Luther King Jr. and Tiger Woods.
When complications with the demolition of a landmark house in the community threaten their urban renaissance project, Hicks is lost in a vision that has him a deal-maker in the world of Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes and Noble. Wilks, however, finds a connection to the cultural history embodied in the decrepit old Federalist brick home with beveled glass on every floor and a staircase made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade.
“You should feel the woodwork,” he says after visiting the house he had scheduled for demolition. “If you run your hand slow over some of the wood, you can make out these carvings. There are faces, lines making letters. An old language.”
The language carved out long ago, the faces of the past embedded in the woodwork, is vintage Wilson. It’s in this tactile evoking of ancestral memory that his characters ground themselves, touching a hallowed heritage not easily papered over.
Wilson’s final play pays homage to the characters who have populated his body of work, and, at Radio Golf’s heart is a character first introduced in the sixth play in the cycle, Two Trains Running, set in the ’60s during which Wilson himself came of age. Aunt Ester first appeared in Wilson’s work as a 349-year-old conjure woman whom Wilson later called “the metaphysical presence of a spirit world that has become increasingly important to my work … The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of [my characters’] personality and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce, and for exposing all the places it is lacking in virtue.”
Aunt Ester is gone by the time of Radio Golf, but beyond the freshly painted red door at 1839 Wylie, she has left a place for the play’s characters to inhabit when contemporary forces threaten to overwhelm them.
The abandoned house in the blighted neighborhood is the tangible evidence of what men like Hicks and Wilks have worked to tear down in clearing a path for assimilation into an urban professional nirvana. But for men who still inhabit the Hill, men like Old Joe and Sterling Johnson (who made his own debut as a character in Two Trains Running) the house carries the weight of a culture they refuse to cast off.
Charles Weldon and Harvy Blanks play these respective voices of reason, and the production marks the sixth Wilson staging at DCTC for each. They are studied in the easy oratory of Wilson’s most prized characters, relishing their final farewell to a pair of Wilson archetypes and embodying the jazz riffing of his repartee, the syncopation of his storytelling.
Though Sterling is the more direct in challenging Wilks’ crisis of character, there is a subtle sense of purpose to the tales Old Joe spins, and Weldon easily justifies the audience’s faith that his yarns will weave together to spell a pattern.
Wilks’ fate lies at that newly painted portal of a home on demolition’s doorstep. Political success is as easy as following the path his father blazed before him, keeping a clear line between the powerful and the impoverished. His pragmatic partner doesn’t care about doorways, as long as he’s on the right side of them, while Sterling has made a life of going in the back door.
“They ain’t gonna let no black man be the mayor,” Old Joe tells him early on. “Got too many keys. The mayor got more keys than the janitor. They ain’t gonna let you have that many keys.”
But Wilks’ campaign is about unlocking obstacles, and whether or not he wins the keys to the city, the red door on Wylie Street is ripe for the picking.
Owen Perkins is secretary of the Denver Democratic Party and a fan of theater. Radio Golf plays the Space Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex through April 25. Mondays-Thursdays at 6:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday matinees at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$51. Call 303-893-4100 (800-641-1222 outside Denver), or go to www.denvercenter.org.