Audiences still know what they’re in for. August Wilson may or may not be the major American playwright of the last 30 years, and if he isn’t top dog, he’s in the top five. His sequence of 10 plays of African-American life, one for each decade of the 20th century, is an acclaimed achievement. He did not write them in sequence, and Syracuse Stage’s producing director Timothy Bond, who has pledged to bring them all to us, has no need to present them in order. Radio Golf was the last to premiere, in 2005. When one considers that Wilson wrote it literally on his deathbed, there’s a surprising, sparkling humor in the first two-thirds, probably as many gag lines as can be found in any of the playwright’s decalogue.
Nonetheless, as the final work of the sequence, Radio Golf expects us to remember a lot of urban and black history as well as genealogy. It’s much the same as in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels, knowing the McCaslins from the Snopes. Kyle Bass and Joseph Whelan’s notes in the program are blessedly useful, but Wilson also glosses several vital relationships in underscored dialogue.
Most importantly, the action of this play, set in 1997, takes place once again in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the three-stratum, mostly black neighborhood populated by ex-slaves after the Civil War. In life much of the Hill was obliterated through urban renewal, which left a huge civic center where families had once existed. In the play Harmond Wilks wants to build fine residences and a shopping center to bring in the likes of Barnes & Noble and Starbucks. Retaining a sliver of the neighborhood’s history, it will be called “Bedford Hills.” At the beginning of the action, a few shabby residences remain to be cleared.
One of the reasons there is so much chortling early in Radio Golf is that the protagonist is a virtual straight man for three male comic characters. Visuals count. Richard Brooks, a veteran of TV’s Grey’s Anatomy and Law & Order, looks and walks like a male model. The three funny guys are, to some degree, all cartoons. First there’s Wilk’s fast-talking and corpulent partner Roosevelt Hicks (G. Valmont Thomas), who really keeps the action humming until he begins to raise suspicion. One is an admiring mimicry of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, anathema to many black intellectuals. Along with the real estate venture, Hicks wants to buy into radio station WBTZ, only he will do it as a minority front for an unseen white backer. As an owner, he becomes the voice of the “Radio Golf” program alluded to in Wilson’s title. Over his desk Hicks displays a poster of Tiger Woods, perhaps an indication of Wilson’s prescience. Worse, Hicks anticipates the reactionary blame-the-victim tirades of the older, unfunny Bill Cosby.
Looking like a character in a Spike Lee movie, and speaking the rhythmic language of the streets, is Sterling Johnson (LeLand Gantt), a building contractor. Unashamed of being an ex-convict (“I robbed a bank”), Johnson’s jivey, poetic speech, a Wilson signature, immediately throws the businesspeople’s language into another light, seemingly bland and perhaps self-deceiving. Wilson buffs will remember Johnson as a character in Two Trains Running (1992). It’s not sentiment that brings him back. No matter how high the Wilkses have ascended, Johnson is the voice of the urban underclass, unintegrated and querulous. He’s a challenge.
The remaining character, Elder Joseph Barlow (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), passes in and out of the action, and it takes us a while to realize he is the thematically dominant character, if not the protagonist. We hear him described first as a possibly loony derelict who refuses to leave one of the slum houses at 1839 Wylie St. (the number is repeated continually, a nudge to the ribs). When he appears he’s shabbily dressed and given to meandering old-man rants, the kind of codger you’d want to avoid if you were stuck standing next to him at the DMV. Recollections begin with pedantically accurate dates of remembered episodes, “It was June 28, 1974, when . . .” Experienced Wilson buffs immediately recognize that the playwright loves such vagrant-Tiresias characters, the marginalized and shunned voices that invariably speak the truth.
Although Elder Joseph is nominally a supporting player, “scene-stealing” is inadequate to describe how he takes over. Tall, bony Thomas Jefferson Byrd, last seen as Toledo in Syracuse Stage’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2008), is a Tony Award-winner and a Wilson specialist. His slow, melodious, hesitant voice does not resemble that of any prominent black personality, but to the ears of anyone who’s been immersed in African-American life, it is certainly authentic. Trouble is, there’s a little too much of a good thing. If the cancer-stricken playwright had more tryouts for Radio Golf, he very likely would have cut some of the speech at the end of the first act. Director Timothy Bond, known for having his players display empathetic, even assertive, listening, compensates expertly and unobtrusively at this point.
The evidence Elder Joseph testifies leads to a twofold dilemma, legal and moral. How Harmond came to claim title to 1839 Wylie St. is revealed as suspect, and if that gets out his mayoral plans are squashed. Reaching deeper, his plans for a more affluent future rest on him obliterating his past.
For all the excellence of this mounting, co-produced with Rochester’s GeVa Theatre, Radio Golf will not rank in the upper half of the 10-part series. Wilson’s deep angst about African-American history and his suspicions about the comfort of racial integration are preached rather than felt.
Nevertheless, director Bond keeps Radio Golf gripping for two hours and 40 minutes. We feel his heart is really in the project. All the players are top-notch, including Crystal Fox, who delivers a resonant Mame from an underwritten role. Program notes also explain the important instructions Bond has given set designer William Bloodgood, both with the storefront office present and the evocative doorway at 1839 Wylie. Thomas C. Hase’s lighting shifts the meaning for the door in different scenes. And Susan K. Mickey’s costumes subtly remind us that the action is indeed 14 years ago.
This production runs through March 13. See Times Table for information.