Radio Golf: A play for our time

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James Craven as Harmond Wilks and Abdul Salaam El Razzac as Elder Joseph Barlow in “Radio Golf” at Penumbra Theatre. Photo credit: Lauren B. Photography

August Wilson died on October 2, 2005, just six months after the premiere of “Radio Golf,” the tenth and final play in “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” his examination of African-American life in the 20th century (one play for each decade). “Radio Golf,” set in the 1990s, is the story of Harmond Wilks, an Ivy League-educated lawyer with an educated and ambitious wife. Wilks wants to redevelop an area of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and declares his candidacy to be the city’s first black mayor.

While Wilson died with the satisfaction of having completed his life’s great project, in retrospect it seems tragic that he didn’t live just 25 months longer, to see the election of the nation’s first black president. Penumbra Theatre Artistic Director Lou Bellamy, who is staging the regional premiere of the play, finds the timing compelling:

Wilson imagined his lead character, Harmond Wilks, Pittsburgh’s first serious black mayoral candidate, long before Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States. Yet, the text of Radio Golf feels and sounds as though it was ripped from yesterday’s headlines. The result is an eerie prescience with which Wilson develops the issues in Radio Golf. It’s possible that his play might provide a more objective snapshot of today’s political climate than our own first-hand observation.

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James Craven as Harmond Wilks and Austene Van as Mame Wilks in “Radio Golf” at Penumbra Theatre. Photo credit: Lauren B. Photography

In “Radio Golf” Harmond Wilks not only faces the skepticism and expectations of his own community:

Sterling: You get to be mayor, is you gonna be mayor of the black folks or the white folks?

Harmond: If I win, I’m going to be mayor of the city Pittsburgh. I’m going to be mayor of all the people.

Sterling: The white mayor, he be the mayor of white folks. Black folks can’t get the streets cleaned. The schools don’t have no textbooks. Don’t have no football uniforms. The mayor be the mayor for white folks. As soon as black folks start a club or something, the first thing they say is it just ain’t gonna be for blacks. Why not? They got five hundred thousand things that be just for white folks. If they have fourteen hundred students out at Pitt eating lunch in the cafeteria, and they have five black people eating lunch together, they say, “look, see, they segregate themselves.” They ain’t said nothing about them thirteen hundred and ninety-five white folks eating lunch by themselves. What’s wrong with being the mayor for black folks?

Harmond: I’m going to be the mayor of everybody. It’s not about being white or black, it’s about being American.

The fact that this is the first time Penumbra Theatre has ever staged “Radio Golf” is worth noting. Actors such as James Craven and Abdul Salaam El Razzac worked with August Wilson when he was alive, and have most of his plays under their belts already. Accompanied by Lou Bellamy’s seasoned direction, the Penumbra’s production is likely to ring paricularly true to the playwright’s voice and vision.

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