Dallas — High drama and the seriousness of childhood games, street poetry and the siren song of golf weave a fascinating tapestry of ambition and dying values in a decaying African-American neighborhood in Radio Golf, August Wilson’s brilliant last work and a 2007 Tony Award nominee. Bernard Cummings directs a high-voltage production staged by African American Repertory Theater, the final show of the Elevator Project, an AT&T Performing Arts Center program spotlighting the work of six small theater companies in the studio spaces in the Wyly Theatre.
The concluding play of Wilson’s grand 10-play chronicle of the African American experience, one for each decade of the 20h century, Radio Golf brings his work full circle as Aunt Ester’s old house in the Hill District of Pittsburg, the setting of the first play in 1904, is scheduled for demolition in 1997.
Deemed depressed and derelict, the once vibrant black community is about to go the way of so many historic ethnic neighborhoods across America, whose history is demolished to make way for high-rise apartments and shopping, including a Starbucks, a Whole Foods and a Barnes & Noble. Sound familiar? (Think Deep Ellum 30 years ago, Uptown a decade ago and Southeast Dallas right now.) The destroyers here, however, are not white developers, but a new breed of upper-class black professional, exhilarated by the world of big money, banking deals and initialed golf bags.
Cornell-educated Harmond Wilks (Vince McGill) grew up in the Hill District and inherited his father’s real estate business. Now he and his old friend Roosevelt Hicks (Adam A. Anderson) are partnering up to revive the dying neighborhood, make a healthy profit on the real estate venture, and promote Harmond’s dream of becoming the first black mayor of Pittsburg. Harmond’s powerhouse wife Mame (Regina Washington) is about to be hired to run the governor’s press office. The guys are moving into their new Hill office, a spare, effective set design by Bradley Gray with broken brick and plaster hanging on both sides of the intruding space. Roosevelt hangs a picture of Tiger Woods by his desk, and Harmond puts Martin Luther King, Jr. over the file cabinet. Looks like everybody’s got blue skies ahead.
The only cloud on the horizon is the disputed deed to the old house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, slated for the imminent demolition. A virtually sacred site for generations, the house belonged to Aunt Ester, a former slave who had mystical powers of sight and instilled in all a profound respect for the history of the people who worked and lived their lives in the neighborhood. Roosevelt, who’s playing golf with millionaires now, knows he’s the “black face” for the white developers using him to earn urban infill tax incentives. In fact, he admits he passes out business cards to prove he’s not the caddy. Still, he urges Harmond to forget the legality of a deed. Such paltry matters can be “handled.” The deal is set, and all their dreams are riding on sticking to the plan.
Two old-timers from the neighborhood eventually show up at the real estate office, reminding Harmond what it cost him to “follow the plan” his father laid out for him. Sterling Johnson (director Cummings stepping in for an ill cast member) hires on as an independent handyman and “member of my own union.”
The other is Elder Joseph Barlow (Hassan El-Amin), a stubborn, crazy old jailbird given to dramatic tirades on racial injustice, is also capable of hilarious streaks of perfectly recalled everyday events labeled with exact dates. Revelations from both these men draw Harmond back to his roots.
What might become a melodrama in lesser hands and with a weaker cast is a compelling and provocative two-and-a-half hours of theater in this first-rate ensemble production. McGill’s Harmond, thin and musing in his talk of urban renewal, the idealism glowing in his face and voice make even potentially dull economic talk interesting. His adoration for his wife Mame changes his voice when he speaks of how he always loved her for her softness, always there inside the toughness. Washington and McGill have a strong chemistry, displaying in small gestures the trust of a loving partnership. Washington’s Mame, elegantly costumed by Amanda MacArthur in designer suits, is both vulnerable and determined. She’s wrenching and utterly real describing how tightly she’s tied herself to her husband over the years, making it almost impossible to define her own center.
Anderson is an energetic, athletic Roosevelt, looking sharp in a series of tailored suits and golf outfits. He’s marvelously full of himself recalling the joy of hitting that first golf ball, “I felt something lift off that I didn’t know I was carrying,” he tells Harmond, smiling in recollection. Then more earthily, “It was like I had a dick in my hand,” he says, laughing about of his first good club. Conversely, he has a thicker voice and an icy glitter in his eye when confronting anything that stands in the way of his ascent to power.
El-Amin, a charismatic actor who brings a unique intensity to any role, is a rousing Elder Joe, hilarious in his crazy-like-a-fox moments, and riveting in his sage-like self-knowledge. “I stole to know what it was like to have money,” he says. His eyes shift to the distance, as he continues, "I found out I was lookin’ for somethin’ I couldn’t spend.” There’s youth in his body when he refuses to play ball with the forces that threaten to destroy the old house, and he knows what to do when offered conscience money.
Cummings’ direction finds complexity and depth in the characters and draws a beautifully timed performance from the ensemble, all of whom handle skillfully Wilson’s magical mash-up of ordinary language and sudden street poetry. Cummings does a phenomenal job stepping in as Sterling when a company member became suddenly ill on opening night. Even while reading many of the lines with script in hand, his Sterling had a joking, playful side, as well as a thin-skinned warrior aspect that sets off the most dramatic fight in the play. Fearless as a savage when truth is on the line, Sterling literally smears on the war paint in a fiery scene with ruthless Roosevelt, challenging him to a rematch of their old game of Cowboys and Indians. He confronts Roosevelt’s aggression with a bitter accusation about the meaning of the word “Negro.”
Pulled by forces of power and personal ambition in one direction, and by claims of ancestry and communal yearnings in another, Harmond’s choice is not easy. We want him to make the right one, no matter who is cheering in each camp in this battle to save the physical evidence of the past and the spiritual strength required to refuse to sell your soul.