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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
RADIO GOLF
at The Cort Theatre

HISTORY HAS ITS PLACE
By Stuart Miller

  Tonya Pinkins

For the tenth and final play of his majestic cycle of African-American life in the 20th-century, August Wilson set himself a monumental task: to write a play about real estate deals, middle-class ambition and backroom politics that still sings the blues... even if the protagonist has whitewashed those deep-seated feelings away as best he can.

And he largely pulls it off, an astonishing accomplishment, especially considering the circumstances: Wilson worked hard to finish Radio Golf shortly before his death in 2005 but "finish" is a relative term for a man who loved rewriting his shows throughout their meandering journeys to Broadway.

The result at the Cort is a play that seems a tad off-balance, with one character seemingly incomplete and another that could have used some nuance. Yet the play packs extra power, not just because of the bittersweet poignancy of a series finale but because it is set in 1997-the closest Wilson ever came to writing in the present-and thus generates more immediacy and urgency than some plays from earlier in the cycle. Additionally, it follows hard after the Signature Theater Company's superb Wilson season (Seven Guitars,Two Trains Running, and King Hedley II), a reminder of how each play imbues the subsequent ones with extra depth.

The story is set in the new office of real estate entrepreneur Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), who wants to redevelop the blighted Hill District and as a mayoral candidate also harbors hopes of transforming the entire city of Pittsburgh. Wilks' strong-willed wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), seems most comfortable bossing Wilks (unsuccessfully) as advisor and campaign manager. Wilks' business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) has his eyes on only one prize-he's willing to chase dollar signs at any cost to his soul. Their grand plans are threatened when it's revealed that their major project--upscale housing plus Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and Whole Foods-requires razing the former home of Aunt Ester, Wilson's ancient sage who was an on- and off-stage presence in other plays. Worse still, the home apparently belonged to Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisolm), who, along with struggling handyman Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), arouses contempt in Hicks but stirs long-buried emotions in Wilks.

The plot has more twists and turns than a typical Wilson play yet all the maneuverings essentially pit Johnson and Barlow (who, like Wilks, is a descendant of character from Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," set 93 years earlier), representing the values of community and of understanding one's roots versus Hicks and Mame Wilks, the symbols of unchecked ambition, willing to shrug off the past and suffer a few casualties in the name of a brighter, or at least, wealthier, future. Harmond Wilks is caught in the middle but Wilson has created an unfair fight. Mame is sketchily drawn, a far cry from the women of Hedley or Seven Guitars, while Hicks is too much the greedy villain, although Williams brings this sneering Gecko-wannabe vividly to life.

Also, in Wilks, Wilson has purposely created his blandest protagonist ever, a man without any poetry, someone who has repressed his true self in his climb up the socioeconomic ladder; it's a bold move but early on it also leaves a void at the play's center, especially since Lennix rushes and occasionally swallows his lines in the first act. (It is also odd that Wilks, raised in the Hill District, doesn't seem to know some of the old residents and hangouts mentioned by Barlow and Johnson.) But in the second act, as the confrontations build, Lennix settles in, proving especially adept as a reactive performer, his character finding himself by learning from others.

 


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