Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Radio Golf (The SOB Review) - Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL

Radio Golf (The SOB Review) - Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL

***1/2 (out of ****)

One week into Black History Month came yesterday's time-appropriate announcement that playwright August Wilson's final work, Radio Golf, would land at Broadway's Cort Theatre in May -- just in time for Tony consideration.

Currently, the powerful, gripping drama is playing Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where I saw it over this past weekend. As moved as I was by the incredible performances, I couldn't help but wonder whether Wilson ever succeeded in reconciling his own mainstream, critical success with the vehement antipathy his protagonists express toward African Americans who willingly play ball with the "white establishment."

Wilson made his mark during the last quarter century via his breathtaking cycle of the African American experience spread out over the entire 20th Century. Set in the nineties, Radio Golf certainly charts the great strides blacks have made, but Wilson also seeks to expose how many have sold out to whites to the detriment of their own people.

Harmond Wilks (Hassan El-Amin) is a land developer with his eye on running for mayor of Pittsburgh. Seeking to be considered as more than simply a black candidate, Harmond proclaims a 30,000 foot, color-blind view, choosing to look at everyone as fellow Americans as he proudly wraps himself in the flag. His wife Mame (Michole Briana White) not only stands as his trusted campaign advisor, but is also poised to become the top communications aide to the Pennsylvania governor once Harmond's campaign is won.

Before Harmond can officially throw his hat into the ring, he and his longtime friend and business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) must capture positive headlines by breaking ground on a prime inner city development that's designed to bring such upscale businesses as Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, along with more than a hundred housing units, to the blighted neighborhood.

But Harmond learns that an elderly man with a questionable background (Elder Joseph Barlow played by Anthony Chisholm) is laying claim to one of the houses that Harmond thought was his. Adding to Harmond's moral dilemma is the streetwise Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), who not only creates Harmond's sure-fire, integrity-rich campaign slogan, "Hold Him To It," but also seeks to do just that in trying to convince Harmond to do the right thing when it comes to Elder's house. Soon, efforts to save the home from being bulldozed become a cause celebre and throw every aspect of Harmond's life into chaos.

Almost everything about this production is top-notch, from Kenny Leon's direction to David Gallo's outstanding set design that's completely evocative of a neighborhood neglected by time and lack of capital. But special praise must be reserved for the brilliant cast. El-Amin provides a spectacularly nuanced performance as the would-be mayor, easily maneuvering from the early euphoria of assured success to an explosive finish. Williams effortlessly makes his Roosevelt a nemesis worth reckoning. But it's the impassioned performances by both Chisholm -- a Wilson staple -- and Jelks, that will likely be remembered for the moral compass they provide.

Without giving away too much more of the plot, a showdown ultimately unfolds between Harmond and Roosevelt. In a stinging screed, Harmond pointedly rebukes his partner for selling out to the whites who are using him to line their own pockets with special government largess and other related considerations.

Sadly, the underlying premise and jaundiced view advanced by Wilson, who was gravely ill when he finished writing Radio Golf, appears to be that whites simply can't be trusted and that African Americans who do so betray and emperil their own people. Personally, I found myself squirming uncomfortably in my seat wondering why we all just couldn't get along. Perhaps that was August's intention from the start. It's quite a parting shot from the man who was arguably the most vital African American playwright of his day.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Did Critics Find Radio Golf On Par With Wilson's Other Works? (January 25, 2007)
Radio Golf Tunes Into Chicago Opening Tonight (January 23, 2007)
Reports: August Wilson's Radio Golf To Swing Into Cort (January 15, 2007)

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At 09 February, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I've only seen one August Wilson play: The Piano Lesson, on DVD. But I think his 10-play cycle is a pretty unique and amazing accomplishment.

It's a tribute to the theater as an art form that he was able to write these 10 plays and have them produced, many of them to great acclaim. I don't know if it would have been possible in any other medium, as films or novels, for example.

And I think you put it very well when you called him arguably the most vital African-American playwright of his day.

For me, that characterization works on two equally important levels. First, it acknowledges Wilson as a chronicler of African-American life in the 20th century. Secondly, it acknowledges him as a great American playwright, period. We're all part of this American tapestry and all of our stories deserve to be heard.

At 09 February, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, The only point on which I'd quibble with you -- and it's a minor detail -- is the word "many" when stating that "many" of his plays have been produced to great acclaim. With the exception of one play, every one of the previous nine have gone to Broadway and received Tony nominations for Best Play.

I agree wholeheartedly that Wilson is a great American playwright, period. And I also believe that it's incumbent upon audiences to seek out experiences from that American tapestry outside of our own comfort zone - how else are we to better understand one another?

At 09 February, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I didn't realize how many of them had gone on to Broadway and been nominated for Best Play. Thanks for setting the record straight! It helps me understand even more Wilson's place in the history of American drama.


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