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A CurtainUp Review
Radio Golf

You the cowboys and I'm the Indians. See who wins this war.—Sterling Johnson
radio golf
Walter Coppage as Harmond Wilks
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
There's a particularly ironic moment in Radio Golf, August Wilson's last play set in Pittsburgh in 1997, now at Washington's Studio Theatre. It comes early in the first act. Harmond Wilks, an African-American businessman who is contemplating a run for mayor, comes from a family deeply rooted in real estate in Pittsburgh's Hill District moves into the new office he shares with an old buddy from days at school, Roosevelt Hicks, now a bank veep and front-man for a white investor who puts his money into a radio station. They are about to work together on an ambitious redevelopment project in their old neighborhood which has fallen on hard times. The city's definition is "blight." Each man puts up a picture of his idol. Hicks, who goes through life "lookin' for the feelin'," the thrill he got when he took his first swing with a golf club, hangs a poster of Tiger Woods. Wilks, a pragmatist who would like to think he is a do gooder, puts up a photo of Martin Luther King.

Their redevelopment project of homes and shops such as Whole Foods, runs into snags —- personal and financial. The most obvious obstacle being "Elder" Joseph Barlow, who would like to be thought of as a doddering old fool, but is in fact as crazy as a fox. As Barlow, Frederick Strother, who has worked for many years on Washington's stages, turns in his best performance to date. His comic timing is perfect. A large man, who towers over the actors he is tormenting with his wily ways, Strother is funny. And clever. And purposeful. His challenges to Wilks (convincingly played by Walter Coppage) and Hicks (Kim Sullivan, whose charm makes you understand how he trumps the questionable morals of his deals) belie his appearance. No fool he; he's as sharp as a tack.

Rounding out the ensemble, fine tuned by director Ron Himes, are the hard-driving but not hard-hearted Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mame Wilks, Harmond's politically ambitious wife, dressed (by Reggie Ray) most appropriately in suits that say she means business; Erik Kilpatrick as Sterling Johnson, the orphan who got into trouble, became an odd job man, and in spite of or maybe because of living hand-to-mouth, maintains a sense of right and wrong. He is the conscience of the piece.

For those of us who find most of August Wilson's work too talky and repetitious, Radio Golf is an eye-opener. Although the second act drags a bit, this otherwise excellent production takes you into the conflicts of socio-economic standing, of morals, of ambition and the lack of it within the African-American community.

To see Radio Golf at Washington's Studio Theatre on 14th Street, NW. is particularly poignant. After Martin Luther King was shot in 1968, the area was burned down by its hurt and angry residents. Its fate for the next two decades was what the "blight" referred to in the play. Thirty years ago, a theater troupe headed by Joy Zinoman moved in. Partly thanks to that theater's pioneering spirit in terms of real estate, 14th Street today is one of the city's most vibrant, multi-culti neighborhoods. Upscale ethnic restaurants, furniture stores, million dollar condos, and Whole Foods are neighbors to the 4-stage Studio Theatre, sometimes called the Zinoplex.

Editor's Note: For more about August Wilson, with links to other productions of Radio Golf we've reviewed, as well as his other plays, see our new August Wilson backgrounder

Radio Golf
By August Wilson
Director: Ron Himes
Cast: Walter Coppage (Harmond Wilks), Erik Kilpatrick (Sterling Johnson); Deidra LaWan Starnes (Mame Wilks); Frederick Strother ("Elder" Joseph Barlow); Kim Sullivan (Roosevelt Hicks).
Setting: Daniel Conway
Lighting: Colin K. Bills
Costumes: Reggie Ray
Sound: Neil McFadden
Running time: Two and a half hours, one intermission.
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., NW; Washington, DC;202-332-3300;
From May 20, 2009; opening May 24, 2009; closing June 28, 2009.
Review, by Susan Davidson, based on May 24, 2009 matinee performance.
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