Radio Golf at Arden Theatre Co.

August Wilson was an African-American playwright who chronicled life in the Black Pittsburgh community, in which he grew up, in a series of ten plays . Two of them, “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” won the Pulitzer Prize. Each play is about another decade of the 20th century, with “Radio Golf” taking place in the 1990’s. It premiered in 2005, the year Wilson died. It is an extraordinary play getting an outstanding production at The Arden Theatre Company.

            The play revolves around Harmond Wilks, a Harvard educated man, who inherited his father’s real estate agency- he is also seeking to become Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. He is about to embark on redeveloping the Hill District, an area that has fallen on hard times. There are plans for a 10-story high rise with 180 apartments. There are also deals in the making that will include a Whole Foods, a Starbucks, a Barnes & Noble, and a golf driving range. Only an old abandoned house remains on the property and is scheduled for demolition… until an old man appears, who is painting the house.

            While this is a story about progress versus tradition, it is also a tale of what it means to be an African-American at the end of the 20th century. Two of the other four characters in the play, Wilks’s wife Mame and his friend Roosevelt, seek to rise in the world through their connections with white politicians and businessmen. She hopes to get an important job and he wants to connect with a shady, but rich investor, to get a share in the purchase of a radio station at less than market value because he would qualify for the minority tax incentive.

            On the other side are Sterling Johnson and Joseph Barlow. Johnson, also an old friend of Wilks, is a brutish guy who is often on the wrong side of the law. He brags that once he robbed a bank just to see what it was like to have some money. He is an independent construction worker who constantly challenges Wilks while he seeks work from his friend.

            The final character we meet is Joseph Barlow, the old man who is painting the house that is about to be torn down. He has a strange and mysterious past. He clearly seems crazy. But is he? He claims that it is his house and he is painting it for his daughter, though no one has lived there for years and it had been bought by Wilks at a sheriff’s sale.

One significant symbol in the play and in Wilks’s life is golf. He has a little putting green in the office. His friend Roosevelt also loves golf. Wilks hangs a picture of Tiger Woods on the wall beside the one of Martin Luther King Jr., that he’d put up earlier. Later, the oddball Barlow,  though he has no interest in golf, grabs and pockets a golf ball when no one is looking.

Will a golf driving range replace the old football field? Will a modern apartment building replace the blight in the area? Will the house at 1839 Wylie be torn down?

That is the essence of the story, but Wilson’s play is far more than story. His characters are what make this a a must-see play. The greediness of Mame and Roosevelt, the crudeness of Johnson, and Barlow’s powerful  drive to survive in an alien world-  Wilks must figure out the best course. Then, there is  the wonderful humor Wilson injects throughout the play in the many riveting stories. But what makes the play even greater is the unsaid larger picture.

How does a Black person differ from a Negro in the year 1997? It is reminiscent of the contrasts between King and Malcolm X, decades earlier. This time, Hammond Wilks is at the center of a personal dilemma.  He is an American and proud of it. But what does that mean?

“Radio Golf”  is the fifth August Wilson play produced by The Arden Theatre Company. It was one I was not familiar with. It is exquisitely directed by Kash Goins with an  extraordinary ensemble. I can’t wait for the next one.

“Radio Golf” by August Wilson.  Thru April 16, 2023.   Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106,  215-922-1122.

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