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A CurtainUp Review
(McCarter Theater, NJ and on Broadway
Review of this production at the McCarter By Simon Saltzman
The play's long-anticipated journey to the McCarter Theatre took almost two years. Following its run in New Haven, Radio Golf has had subsequent productions with some cast changes at the Mark Taper Forum, Seattle Rep., Baltimore's Center Stage, Boston University's Huntington Theatre Company, and at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, all under the direction of Kenny Leon. Leon, who also directed the Broadway production of Gem of the Ocean, remains at the helm at McCarter as well as for the Broadway production which is set to begin performances on April 20th.
Most of the principal characters Wilson created changed with each play and with each succeeding generation and within the parameters of the decade by decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. The beauty of the canon is that its chronology is second to its vision of extraordinary, if everyday, characters— descendents of slaves, survivors of segregation, and still victims of pervasive racism. All are clearly defined, motivated and manipulated by the realities of each play's particular locale in a particular time. Except for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which was set in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920s, all the plays are set within the Hill District.
Set in 1997, Golf Radio may not be Wilson's most stimulating, or most suspenseful work, but it is, nevertheless, a humdinger of a comedy/drama and it admirably holds its own within the cycle as the culmination of an era. Aspirers and activists are at the fore and there is not a dull one among them. Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix) has more on his agenda than simply becoming a mayoral candidate. He has continued the success of his prosperous family's real estate business. As an ambitious developer, although his moral fiber makes him a rare one, he is formalizing an urban renewal project that will of necessity include the demolition of abandoned property as well as a historic home. This unsurprisingly stirs up conflicts with his business partner, members of the community and his wife. Whether the obliteration of the past is necessary for the creation of the future becomes the major plot through-line.
Lennix gives a sturdy impassioned performance as a Cornell University graduate suddenly faced with a moral issue and a business dilemma. It's clear from the outset that Wilks, who can't help but admire the embossed tin ceiling in his provisional office within a dilapidated store front building, has an innate respect for his heritage, the history and landmarks that may have to be sacrificed in the name of progress. It is also evident that Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), his business partner, a vice-president in a local bank, is primarily motivated by the money to be made. Despite their long-time friendship, it soon becomes apparent that Harmond and Roosevelt have different long-term goals. To further his ambitions, Hicks plays golf with the white men with whom he has aligned himself in various business deals. The title offers a clue to how his interest for the game has materialized.
As we have come to expect in a Wilson play, there are disruptive characters who add dimension and complexity to the situation, each one blessed with the gift of highly intensified vividly articulate gab. Tonya Pinkins, most recently on Broadway in Caroline, or Change, is splendid as Mame, Wilk's supportive wife, an attractive practical woman. She is not only Harmond's hard-working campaign manager but pursuing professional aspirations of her own which may be severely compromised by Harmond's perhaps too high ethical standards.
John Earl Jelks is an energizing and feisty presence as Sterling Johnson, a surprisingly affable jail bird and burglar hoping to get a job with the construction crew ("I'm my own Union."), and who will add neighborhood activist to his resume. Sterling is no longer the young hot-headed romantic we first met in Two Trains Running, but he is nevertheless ready to be confrontational with Roosevelt. He is also a staunch defender of Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) who claims that he is the owner of one of the buildings on the list for leveling. Chisholm, who received warm entrance applause, presumably from those who remember his splendid performances on Broadway as Wolf in Two Trains Running, and as Two Kings in Gem of the Ocean, is once again mesmerizing as the somewhat derelict looking Old Joe who, besides being nobody's fool, is cornucopia full of neighborhood lore. He keeps the past alive as he recalls the day and date of the district's history and the people who made it.
No one who remembers the 285 year-old Aunt Ester from Gem of the Ocean will be surprised to learn that it is her home at 1839 Wylie Avenue that is in peril. There is much to savor and ponder in this play as the characters find themselves digging deep within themselves to see who they really are and who they have become and to whom they are related. You can be sure that whenever the going gets heavy there is a belly laugh on its way. There are times late in the play, even under Leon's arresting direction, when patience is required as the lessons to be learned are expectedly over-articulated.
The decaying provisional office, superbly lighted by Donald Holder, has been designed by the essential David Gallo (he designed the Broadway production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and King Hedley II as well as the Off-Broadway-produced Jitney) to look as if the only provision is that the brilliant evocation of a crumbling building doesn't fall in on the actors before the end of the play. Visible above the office are the shattered windows and shredding curtains in the abandoned apartments— to the left a barber shop and to the right the corner eatery, the remnants of both summoning up an eerie sense of the past. The set is a testimonial in itself that speaks to us even before the first word is uttered.
For those of us who have had the good fortune to have seen all ten plays, Radio Golf brings the on-going issues of cultural identity, the preservation of heritage, and the complexities of social equality in America to a necessarily conflicted climax. Its ending that can be seen as an indication of the enormity of the even larger and more multifaceted racial and socio-cultural challenges that are now facing us in the 21st century. For preparing us, we thank you, Mr. August Wilson.
Links to other August Wilson Productions Reviewed, Including Radio Golf in Los Angeles
Fences, Pasadena Playhouse
Gem of the Ocean, LA & NY
Gem of the Ocean, London
Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Los Angeles
King Hedley II, LA (LA)
King Hedley II, Broadway)
King Hedley II, London
King Hedley II, Philadelphia
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Two Trains Running
Radio Golf, LA
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide