Thursday, February 16, 2012

Radio Golf

RADIO GOLF, Cleveland Play House’s Black History month production

Black history month means an explosion of theatre offerings in this multi-racial city. Ensemble has already performed A SONG FOR CORETTA and LOWER NINTH. Karamu staged THE BLUEST EYE, and though it will be beyond February they will stage GEM OF THE OCEAN from May 11-June 3. East Cleveland Theater is staging Wilson’s FENCES February 11-March 4, True North Cultural Arts will present THE PIANO LESSON from February 17-March 4 and Cuyahoga County Community College stages TWO TRAINS RUNNING at its Metro campus from March 29-April 7. The latter four scripts were written by August Wilson, as is the Cleveland Play House’s present production, RADIO GOLF.

RADIO GOLF is a seminal script. It was Wilson’s last work. He died in 2005, the year the play was published. It is the final chapter in his ten-play cycle which intended to chronicle African-American life in the 20th century.

The story centers around Harmond Wilks, a well-educated, wealthy real estate broker. He and Roosevelt Hicks want to develop the blighted Hill District in Pittsburgh. Wilks is also a candidate for the mayor of the Steel City. Problems arise when Wilks discovers that a house in the area was acquired illegally. Wilks attempts to buy the property from Old Joe, the tax delinquent owner, who is a vagrant with a questionable past, but Old Joe won’t sell. He has the backing of Sterling Johnson, a construction worker. Wilks decides to build around the house, much to the frustration of his partner, who has worked out a deal with a white developer to be his “black face” in several deals, including buying a radio station. On the day that the house is to be demolished, Hicks and Wilks have a falling out and Wilks goes to participate in a rally to stop the demolition, thus giving up his dreams of wealth, his political future, and possibly his wife.

RADIO GOLF is a true final play in the series, as it includes references and issues that Wilson discussed in earlier works. It centers on the question of what it means to be African America. The play asks whether it is possible for black culture to be preserved as it is integrated into mainstream white society.

Wilson focuses his vision on reality. He opens the issue of the differences in being a “negra” and a “nigger.” He asks whether there is a dissimilarity between the white’s and black’s definition of ethics and morality. He examines if progress is really good for black Americans. He uses the golf game to illustrate the alterations taking place in the African American community as they transfer from being denied privileges at golf courses, into playing the white man’s game.

The play won the New York Critic’s 2007 new play award.

CPH’s production, under the direction of Lou Bellamy, is generally effective. It’s long, especially the first act, which tends to get too caught up in exposition, thus slowing down the idea development.

Abdul Salaam El Razzac is both poignant and delightful as Old Joe. When he is present, he controls the stage with subtlety and character underplay. Terry Bellamy, as Sterling, develops a clear character as an advocate for Old Joe and a conscious for Harmond. David Alan Anderson is properly manipulative and smarmy as Roosevelt. He clearly illustrates he is out for Roosevelt, and Roosevelt, alone. Austene Van is properly aloof and self-centered as Mame Wilks, Harmond’s wife.

James Craven has the difficult job of developing a realistic Harmond. He does an excellent job early on. At the end, however, he starts screaming and swallowing his words. His breakdown would have been more effective with more intense internal emotion and less unbridled hysteria.

Vicki Smith’s set design, Karen Perry’s costumes, Don Darnutzer’s lighting design and James Swonger’s sound design all help enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: RADIO GOLF, the last play in August Wilson’s monumental 10 play cycle, gets a very good, but not a great production at the Cleveland Play House.