Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Radio Golf": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG



After seeing the Northern California Premiere of August Wilson's final play "Radio Golf," this reviewer was enthused, as well as conflicted. I hurried home to read earlier comments about the play, since its official Broadway opening in 2005. Reviewers seem to be in agreement about the show's one red flag -- the lead is so passive it's hard to come down strongly on his side -- but there is a lot of disagreement on just about every other point.

I believe August Wilson saved the best for last -- his most scathing opinions about society as a whole, and race relations in particular, are delivered through the clear lens of a playwright who knows he is dying of cancer. Through the story of the young candidate for mayor (Harmond Wilks, played by Aldo Billingslea), we see the attempt to gentrify the venerable black district of Pittsburgh, known as The Hill, as part of the same struggle being disputed today across the nation. Assimilation means progress, but it also means bulldozing Aunt Ester's house, the 366-year-old conscience of several of Wilson's previous plays. Placing your development office on the Hill is good for your image but it also means somebody is bound to steal your golf clubs out of your trunk.

Golf: the ultimate symbol, the white power broker's game. It is fatally seductive to Harmond and his partner Roosevelt Hicks (played by Anthony J. Haney) but a golf club is just another weapon to hit somebody over the head with, if you ask ex-con Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender).



August Wilson grew up on the Hill, and The Hill is where all but two of the plays in Wilson's monumental ten-play cycle are set. These dramas record nothing less than a cross-section of the African-American experience of the 20th Century, and August Wilson knew what he was writing about. It's old versus new, and by extension good versus bad. It'll be nice to have a Starbucks and a Real Foods, but who will remember the chicken shack where the two old ladies fried chicken all weekend for neighbors lined up around the block? And what about Aunt Ester? Who will remember her?



Old Joe will, that's who. Old Joe is the show. Whenever Elder Joseph Barlow (played magnificently by Charles Branklyn) opens his mouth, wisdom and stubborness emerge in equal measure. He remembers the exact date of everything important that ever happened on The Hill. It's Old Joe's house the developers want to tear down and he's not about to let it happen. He is helped in his refusal to roll over by Sterling Johnson, the show's other sympathetic man of the people. These two men have the playwright's ear, while the forces of modernity, represented by Harmond Wilks, Roosevelt Hicks and Harmond's wife Mame (C. Kelley Wright) are not looked upon with favor.

Or are they? This is the rub. In the end, neither good nor evil triumph. It is reality that rises to the top. The ending is perhaps troubling, but that must be the way August Wilson wanted it. Many believe "Radio Golf" is not "Fences" or "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," but this reviewer is not so sure. Let's stew on it awhile longer.

--------------

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Radio Golf" three and a half stars. Charles Branklyn is so good the author could have written Act Three with only him in it. The cowboy-and-Indian subtext carries a lot of power. And a special BANGLE of Praise is offered to Sterling Johnson for his metaphysical query about the quarter and the vending machine. If you (black people) put your quarter into the machine, and the machine (white power structure) spits it out, whose fault is it? The quarter? Or the machine?

It appears that the author's answer would be: you'd better learn just HOW to put that quarter in, if you ever want to get anything out.

--------------
"Radio Golf"
TheatreWorks: Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tue-Sun through November 2
$23-$61

1 comment: