August Wilson died six months after writing Radio Golf , the final installment of his 10-play Century Cycle, a lifelong project that features a play set in each decade of the 20th Century. It would be fitting and just to say that Wilson left the best for last, but he didn’t— Radio Golf doesn’t even rank in the top five plays of Wilson’s cycle. But what it lacks in emotional, spiritual, and dramatic depth, it makes up for in a kind of eerie relevance. And Penumbra Theatre, under the direction of Lou Bellamy, is breathing life into the play in a way no other company in the country can.
The central character of the play is a man named Harmond Wilks (played by James Craven), a highly educated real-estate mogul who is running to be the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. He and his partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Kevin West) want to redevelop a poor section of town by building a sleek high-rise apartment building and surrounding it with chain stores like Starbuck’s, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble. Only one problem: a historic home sits on the property, and tearing it down would mean obliterating a few hundred years of African-American history.
This theme of protecting and reclaiming history runs throughout the Century Cycle. But Radio Golf is different in that it criticizes upwardly mobile black professionals for abandoning their history and buying into the American Dream—a white man’s fantasy—of opportunity, consumption, and greed (for both money and power). It also takes a few powerful shots at blacks who wallow in hatred and self-pity, and who sabotage their lives by eschewing education, indulging drugs and alcohol, and abandoning responsibility.
Indeed, Radio Golf is viciously satirical of the black experience, so much so that I overheard several people talking at intermission about how they couldn’t believe what this play is saying. It’s like a wake-up slap to black community. White oppression is largely set aside in Radio Golf to create black Americans who are both good and bad, right and wrong, ambitious but conflicted. In Radio Golf , black people are their own worst enemy, and they end up almost literally (and certainly metaphorically) going to war against each other. The fact that Harmond Wilks presages the rise of Barack Obama is one of those intersections of art and history that adds several layers of immediate relevance to the play, and to say that it’s thought-provoking would be a severe understatement.
Penumbra’s August Wilson All-Star team—Craven, West, Terry Bellamy, and Abdul El Salaam Razzac—are in firm control of the material, as usual, but there aren’t as many belly laughs or spiritual mindbenders as there are in other Wilson plays. Still, Salaam Razzac gets a lot of air time as Elder Joseph Barlow, a wily old coot who claims he owns the house Wilks and company want to destroy to make way for their development. Honestly, I could watch Razzac sit still in a chair for two hours. The man is a masterful actor in complete control of his craft, and watching him move onstage is like watching a virtuoso violinist pull off dazzling runs with effortless ease. He is the play’s conscience, the voice of history, and his wise but eccentric skepticism is the glue that holds the play together.
Radio Golf is part of Penumbra’s project to produce the entirety of Wilson’s Century Cycle over the course of five years, and it’s worth remembering that, for Twin Citians, seeing these plays done this way by the people who knew and loved Wilson best is an extraordinary opportunity. No theater in the country does these plays better, and in a perfect world they would be required viewing by everyone. Take advantage and see them while you can.
Radio Golf continues at Penumbra Theatre through Oct. 25, penumbratheatre.org