Radio Golf. Written by August Wilson. Directed by Gloria Weinstock. Multi Ethnic Theater in Association with SF Recovery Theatre. PianoFight, 144 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA.
Multi Ethnic Theater presents Radio Golf, August Wilson’s last play in his Pittsburgh Cycle, ten dramas chronically African-American reality in 20th century America. The story centers on real-estate developer Harmond Wilks, a man at a crossroads between his past and present, caught in a moral quagmire over doing the right thing or achieving his goals at any cost. Radio Golf is chock full of typical Wilson dialogue- full of colloquial, realistic black dialect typical of his native Pittsburgh and is a delight for the ear.
Set in 1997, Wilks, his ambitious wife Mame, and friend Roosevelt Hicks are gearing up for his candidacy for mayor and busy working on their pet project, a redevelopment of a broken down area of Pittsburgh called The Hill District. All seems to be proceeding smoothly; Harmond is a success, his wife is soon to be named Press Secretary to the Governor and Hicks has been promoted to VP at a bank. The represent the new faces of African-America; educated, upwardly mobile and eager to assimilate into upper middle class white society.
Enter two eccentric characters to the mix: Sterling Johnson, a neighborhood handyman, and Elder Joe Barlow, a seemingly disturbed and demented older gentleman. These two throw a major monkey wrench in the redevelopment plans. Seems Wilks’ real estate company bought Barlow’s home illegally during a tax repossession case. Everything gets turned on its ear; when Wilks decides to save the home at the expense of his redevelopment plan, he and his wife bicker. His relationship with old pal Roosevelt disintegrates.
The acting is top-notch in this production. Geoffrey Grier’s Harmond is a man trapped between ideologies, his wife Mame (Nicole Harley) more assured in her path, but perhaps losing he moral compass. You can empathize with the driven Roosevelt (Gift Harris), but also understand when Sterling, (brilliantly played by Vernon Medearis) reads him as a ‘negroe’. His condemnation of Roosevelt highlights the dilemma brilliantly: “You know what you are? It took me a while to figure it out. You a Negro. White people will get confused and call you a nigger hut they don’t know like I know. I know the truth of it. I’m a nigger. Negroes are the worst thing in God’s creation. Niggers got style. Negroes got blind-eyetist. A dog knows it’s a dog. A cat knows it’s a cat. But a Negro don’t know he’s a Negro. He thinks he’s a white man. It’s Negroes like you who hold us back”.
Kevin Johnson’s Old Joe is the heart of the piece. What seems initially like befuddlement turns out to be the voice of reason. A simple man, he represents the legacy of the Hill District, the combined history of all that seems gone and pushed aside. He can’t possibly understand the new world that steals a man’s home. When Sterling ask him if he wants his about to be demolished home painted green, Old Joe delivers his ‘Sam Green’ speech, a splendid example of the reason Wilson won the Pulitzer: “Every time I hear the word “green” I think of Sam Green. Did you know Sam Green? You can’t be nobody but who you are. That’s when I first found that out. Sam Green was a black man used to own a grocery store down on Fullerton Street. Green’s Groceries. That was the biggest grocery store down there. Used to sell live chickens and have the vegetables sitting out on the sidewalk. Everybody used to shop at Green’s Groceries. He went out to Shadyside to buy some furniture and the police arrested him. Say he looked suspicious. He can’t look no other way than the way he look. He found out he living with people who look at him with suspicion. Wherever he go and whatever he do. He found that out and that sent him straight to the hospital. Had to haul him away in a straight jacket. They took him over to Mayview. He still there I believe. If he ain’t died. He might be dead ’cause living like that is hard on your body”. There’s no better condemnation of the de-valuing of human beings.
Wilson is constantly challenging his audiences on what it means to be a black person in America. The takeaway from this play is that there must be an integration and preservation of one’s heritage and the ever-changing landscape of the present.
Performances run through September 9th, 2017 www.wehavemet.org