Anthony Chisholm and Harry Lennix in August Wilsons Radio Golf
A tale of gentrification all too familiar
By Scott Harrah
The final installment of the late August Wilsons series of 10 plays about African-Americans in Pittsburghs Hill District where the playwright grew up in real life depicts the challenges often faced in the name of gentrification, and the ethical dilemmas that arise when the ghetto gets a facelift and developers start tearing down old homes to make way for a luxury high-rises and homogenized franchises like Starbucks, Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods. Although the setting is Pittsburgh, it could easily be modern-day Manhattan or Brooklyn, both places that are currently enduring the wrecking ball in countless neighborhoods to make way for overpriced condos and retail chains.
Set in 1997, the characters in Radio Golf are quite different from those in Wilsons earlier dramas: college-educated lawyers, bankers and politicians. This thought-provoking story, aided by Kenny Leons fast-moving direction, revolves around Harmond Wilks (played with conviction and confidence by Harry Lennix of TVs hit show 24). Wilks is a real-estate developer who is vying to become the first African-American mayor of Pittsburgh. His wife, PR professional Mame (the sassy, spunky Tonya Pinkins), is his biggest supporter and is about to land a job as the press secretary for the Governor of Pennsylvania.
Wilks is in the middle of a real-estate project with his business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), a VP at Mellon Bank with an affinity for big bucks and golf who has just bought a local radio station with the help of a white financial backer. A poster of his hero, Tiger Woods, hangs on their office wall, and is like a symbolic omen of change and African-American progress in a blighted neighborhood of dilapidated buildings.
Conflict ensues when Wilks encounters two men, Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks) and Elder Joseph Barlow (played with incredible poignancy by Anthony Chisholm). They inform the developers that Barlows house, located at 1839 Wiley Avenue, is being condemned to make way for Wilks and Hicks huge apartment complex. The address may be familiar to fans of Wilsons earlier plays in the series: it was the home of Aunt Ester, a woman who lived for decades in the Hill. This all leads up to a serious moral dilemma for Wilks: Can he live with himself by tearing down a mans home for the sake of progress and money? There are other reasons why condemning the house becomes problematic, but it would spoil the story to explain more.
Of course, race is certainly a hot topic here, and Wilks is in a tough predicament as he longs to become mayor and ponders how to properly lead both whites and blacks equally in Pittsburgh. In one of the shows most powerful scenes, Wilks mentally eviscerates Hicks for overlooking the needs of the African-American community in order to fatten up his bank account.
Radio Golf has a plot that is solid enough to capture the attention of those who have not seen the other plays in Wilsons series about folks on the Hill, and its lessons on social economics, morality and urban development are as truthful today as they were a decade ago. It is an insightful story about the need to remember the complexities of ones roots, and being true to them when the lure of big money and glory blur the lines between right and wrong.