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Unfinished Business

August Wilson's Last Play Lacks His Best Works’ Dramatic Fireworks

A REAL CARD: (from left) Rocky Carroll and James Williams make plans for the old neighborhood in Radio Golf.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/5/2006

Radio Golf

By August Wilson

At Center Stage through April 30

Is it fair to criticize a playwright for writing a play that is merely very good after turning out masterpieces in the past? August Wilson, who died last October, wrote five of the best plays the American theater has ever seen: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Fences, and Two Trains Running. They were part of a 10-play cycle with one work for each decade of the 20th century; all but one (Ma Rainey) were set in Pittsburgh’s African-American Hill District where Wilson grew up.

Radio Golf is both the last play that Wilson wrote and the last play in the chronological cycle. It premiered in New Haven, Conn., just last year, and it is set in 1997, when the Hill District has deteriorated to a ghetto ghost town even as the city’s local black middle class, long fled from the Hill, is more flush and confident than ever. The play tries to wrestle with that contradiction, but when the dilemma becomes too slippery, Wilson gives up and settles for a sentimental hurrah on behalf of the underdog.

But keep things in perspective: Radio Golf may not be as good as Fences, but it’s as good as the better episodes of HBO’s The Wire, and that’s high praise indeed. Unlike Wilson’s best plays, Radio Golf doesn’t have the spellbinding memory monologues, the breathtaking first-act climax, the passages of pure poetry, nor the final standoff between two evenly matched rivals. It does, however, crackle with lively language, impromptu music, and down-home humor.

The entire play takes place in an office of discolored linoleum and cardboard file boxes. Two old college roommates, Harmond Wilks and Roosevelt Hicks, both decked out in shiny new suits and expensive haircuts, have come back to the old neighborhood to set up Bedford Hills Redevelopment Inc., a firm that’s angling for state and federal money to build a $5 million retail-and-apartments complex. To get the money, they have to get Pittsburgh’s historic black neighborhood declared a “blight,” and they have to get legal claim to all the old houses on the site.

They thought they had the latter problem solved, but it turns out the city sold the house at 1839 Wylie Ave. illegally. That address should ring bells for longtime Wilson fans, for it’s the home of Aunt Esther, the ghetto oracle who dominated his Gem of the Ocean and who advised characters in several more plays before dying at age 366 in King Hedley II. Her heir, an addled, grizzled man named Old Joe, claims—rightly, it turns out—that he was never informed about the unpaid taxes, and he wants to reoccupy the abandoned building.

Harmond (Rocky Carroll), the grandson of Gem’s black constable Caesar Wilks, is campaigning to become Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. But he finds himself caught in the middle between Roosevelt and Old Joe. Forever practicing his golf swing in his tailored three-piece suit, Roosevelt (James A. Williams) is a willing partner whenever a white businessman needs to bid on a “minority contract.” By contrast, Old Joe (six-time Center Stage actor Anthony Chisholm) is a squinty-eyed, semihomeless man who keeps tugging at his secondhand clothes and salt-and-pepper beard as he tells his disjointed, digressive stories.

Roosevelt, supported by Harmond’s wife, Mame (Denise Burse), wants Harmond to act like a real businessman and press ahead with the construction deal even if he has to cut some corners. Old Joe, bolstered by the local handyman Sterling (John Earl Jelks), expects Harmond to live up to his campaign slogan, “Hold Me to It.” Should Harmond go ahead with the scheduled demolition of the illegally acquired house or not?

Golf’s weakness is that Wilson never quite brings Harmond into focus. The problem is not that the playwright doesn’t understand his protagonist. It’s that Wilson never resolved his own conflicted feelings about his middle-class success after leaving the Hill District and thus can’t quite decide how his character should feel. When Harmond finally makes his decision, it seems arbitrary—convenient for the author but unsupported by the action. It’s as if one side of the argument suddenly evaporated for no apparent reason.

Roosevelt, Old Joe, and Sterling are sharply defined types, and the actors Williams, Chisholm, and Jelks wring both rollicking comedy and sharpened anger from them. But Harmond and his wife are too underdefined for the actors to have much chance. Maybe if Wilson had lived long enough and had rewritten the play—as was his wont between a regional theater opening and a New York debut—he might have found Harmond’s character. We’ll never know.

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