‘Radio Golf’ Leavens Difficult Questions with Pointed Laughter

Two River Theater’s production of August Wilson’s last play runs through March 22.

Amber Iman and Carl Hendrick Louis in August Wilson's Radio Golf. Photo by T Charles Erickson

[UPDATE: As of March 13, 2020, Two River Theater has cancelled all performances and events through the end of March. You can read more here.]

In Radio Golf, the last play in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, a character does something no character in any of the previous nine plays could have contemplated: He runs for mayor.

On the stage of Two River Theater in Red Bank, it is 1997. In his office in the Hill District—the fabled black neighborhood of Wilson’s native Pittsburgh and the setting of all but one of the plays in cycle—Harmond Wilks is thinking big. He’s not talking some minor, honorary post. With his wife, Mame, by his side, he’s running to be mayor of the entire city of Pittsburgh, black and white.

It’s not an unrealistic goal. Unlike the often scuffling characters in Wilson’s earlier plays, Harmond is a real-estate developer; his business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, is a bank vice-president. On the rise socially and economically, they have taken up golf, which connects them with power brokers who are not blind to the tax advantages of partnering with minorities. Roosevelt becomes part owner of a radio station, and even gets his own show, Radio Golf.

The two move ahead with their ambitious plan to bring new housing to the downtrodden Hill, along with the sheen of a Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble.

The only catch is that the partners need the government to declare their site blighted, so it can be razed and they can receive the federal funds they need to redevelop it. Harmond and Roosevelt see nothing but blue skies ahead. They even sing the song together.

Kicking off Harmond’s mayoral campaign, he and Mame, a public relations consultant, hammer out a platform of redevelopment and upward mobility and seal it with a catchy slogan: Hold Me To It!

Fateful words.

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In Two River’s bracing production of the play, directed by Obie Award winner and Wilson veteran Brandon J. Dirden, the gnarly past is asked to step aside for the supposedly sparkly future. If you know your Wilson, you know that is not going to happen so easily.

Questions arise as to the fate of a certain house slated for demolition. In this house, the near-mythical Wilsonian character Aunt Ester lived for a good many of her 349 years. Now the house is an empty shell, but some lone kook is discovered painting it.

The cast is excellent. Needling assertions of what’s right come from Nathan James as the cocky young construction worker Sterling Johnson. As cranky-creaky Elder Barlow, Wayne DeHart uses comic languor to plant uncomfortable truths. Every time DeHart half-saunters, half-totters onstage your spirits lift. He will crack you up as he sobers you up, all without seeming to exert himself at all.

As Mame, Amber Imam is indisputably the irresistible, incandescent force behind her man, but nobody’s fool. As enterprising Roosevelt, Robbie Williams hones a bundle of ebullient self-confidence to a razor’s edge. In the linchpin role of Harmond, Carl Hendrick Louis wins our sympathy even as he keeps us on edge.

For director Dirden, Radio Golf is “perhaps Wilson’s most patriotic play. This is the only play in the cycle,” he explains, “where we have a character who’s actually running for civic duty. What’s more American than that? Radio Golf is less insular than the family drama of The Piano Lesson or what happens in the band room of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

“In some of the other plays, we have characters who say, in effect, ‘A lot of the rules are set up to work against me, so I have to make my own rules.’ Now in this play, we have characters who say, ‘Okay, we’re going to play by the rules, and let’s see how far it gets us.’”

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