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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Radio Golf

A Negro is the worst thing in God's creation. A nigger's got style ---Sterling Johnson

Radio Golf, the last in August Wilson's ten-play cycle depicting African-American life in the 20th century decade by decade. It brings closure to the story begun in Gem of the Ocean, produced by the Mark Taper Forum in 2003.

Although these plays chronologically book-end Wilson's story, starting with Gem in 1904 and ending with Golf in 1997, Wilson's followers will observe another pair of book-ends. Wilson's first play was Jitney, written in 1982 and like Radio Golf, it takes place in a small office on Pittsburgh's Hill District. The men in Jitney are part of the blue collar working class of the 1970s, just two years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Junior. The 1990s men in Radio Golf are burnished, buff and on the brink of the business and political cusp. But Jitney and Radio Golf are the same type of play, bursting with energy, humor and a take-no-prisoners confrontational stance on racism and its presence in American life. Although Radio Golf is a sequel to Gem in its continuation of characters, it seems more of a blood brother to Jitney than any of Wilson's other plays.

The play opens with the upbeat energy of Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll) who is running as Pittsburgh's mayor and is also the driving force behind Bedford Hills Redevelopment which plans to use Federal money awarded for the neighborhood's "blight. " His business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), presently a banker, succumbs to the blandishments of a white entrepreneur who first uses him to invest in a radio station and subsequently tries the same trick to get financial control of BHR. Wilks' elegant wife Mame (Denise Burse) is resolutely efficient as she bustles around the city on a fast track to Pittsburgh's First Lady.

Into this busy hive come two Hill denizens who seem to be from another planet or perhaps another decade. They're certainly on another track. Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks) is a house painter who belongs to a union -- his own. He insists on painting 1839 Wylie Avenue, established in Gem as the family home of the 285-year-old Aunt Ester, and standing smack in the middle of the plot planned for BHR's apartment/shopping complex.

The house belongs to Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) who refuses to have it torn down. When it's discovered that through a glitch Wilks didn't aquire rights to it, he goes to inspect the property. The interior works its charm, Wilson's old spell of history, heritage, the bones of slaves at the bottom of the sea, that streak of fantasy Wilson always acknowledges and mines to enrich his stories.

Elder Joseph Barlow's mother used to call him "Old Black Joe," the memorable title of a Stephen Foster song, but Barlow doesn't allow anyone else to do it. His relationship to Hicks stems from Gem and it's unnecessary to the plot but bonds are one of the things Wilson likes.

Wilks comes up with a plan to build the complex around the house, which he considers retaining the neighborhood's history. To Hicks that doesn't compute with the sacrifice of all those parking spaces and the battle is joined. It's reminiscent of the pending evacuation of the Gaza strip. Johnson says it's like cowboys and Indians and he paints his face like an Indian.

Among Wilson's concepts for a better society is reversing the freeway rules, giving the diamond lane to single drivers and all the other lanes to multiple riders. Hicks avers that this will cut down on excess drivers and the audience roared its approval.

The play ends with a fabulous aria about the way blacks are perceived in our society. It has topical echoes of Bill Cosby's recent controversial speech. Although Wilson doesn't care about neat endings, he leaves us with a vivid visual impression. As Wilks laughs and waves a paintbrush in the play's final image, there's the impression that he's painting and updating his heritage.

Director Kenny Leon has done some wonderful things with the script, infusing it with his own passion and energy, and giving Wilks and Hicks a chance to sing and dance a little. It seems a natural part of their lives and their long friendship and it's as telling as dialogue. David Gallo's looming set with its old-fashioned windows and dusty ancient rooms flanking the storefront office underline Wilson's concept.

Rocky Carroll is a sleek Harmond Wilks, a man on the move who's not afraid to look back and within. James A. Williams provides passionate comic relief as Hicks. John Earl Jelks eminates infuriating energy as Johnson, and the ever fascinating Anthony Chisholm demonstrates the inexorable and feisty patriarch who holds onto the past until we see why.

This writer is very fortunate in being exposed to Wilson and his work at the Eugene O'Neill National Playwrights Conference in the 1980s and hearing him talk about his characters, explorations and discoveries. Radio Golf shows how far Wilson has come on this journey as a writer. He's always woven factual stories with the poetic core of his characters and their world. He's an autodidact whose great influence was the poet Borges and whose characters, he has said, come up and talk to him and tell him their tales. They tell him their secrets and without secrets, there is no human mystery. It's this respect for mystery and his passion for the pain and laughter of his people that make August Wilson one of the greatest American playwrights.

Playwright: August Wilson
Director: Kenny Leon
Cast: Denise Burse (Mame Wilks), Rocky Carroll (Harmond Wilks), James A. Williams (Roosevelt Hicks), John Earl Jelks (Sterling Johnson), Anthony Chisholm (Elder Joseph Barlow).
Set Design: David Gallo
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb
Running Time: Two hours forty minutes with one intermission
Running Dates: August 11-September 18, 2005
Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, Ph: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on August 10.

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