Playwright: August Wilson
At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: 773-753-4472; Courttheatre.org; $50-$74. Runs through: Sept. 30
I've always viewed Radio Golfthe last part of August Wilson's epic Century Cyclemostly as a comedy with a hopeful ending. It's the play in which Black entrepreneurs in 1990s Pittsburgh finally achieve political and financial clout while also reconnecting with their cultural and personal roots in the old Hill District ghetto. This sober and angry new production by master director Ron OJ Parson and a splendid cast shows me how wrong I've been.
It gives precedence to the bitterness and accusations that arise between friends and business partners Harmond Wilks ( impeccable Allen Gilmore ) and Roosevelt Hicks ( commanding James Vincent Meredith ) when Wilks undergoes an ethical reawakening. More clearly than before, I understand Wilson's final concerns about what it means to be part of a community, to be Black in a still-white-dominant society and to recognize who you are.
Radio Golf is Wilson's only play to address Black-on-Black racism arising from economic disparity. Harmond Wilks, despite the wealth and advantages he has inherited, finally recognizes that he's from, and of, a poor-but-culturally-rich community. Roosevelt Hicks isn't from the Hill District neighborhood and openly disdains it in favor of material and political gain, represented by his radio station ownership and his love of golf as a game for wealthy deal-makers.
This being a Wilson play, there is much witty and humorous detail and dialogue, mostly supplied by ebullient supporting characters: carpenter Sterling Johnson ( astutely played by James T. Alfred ) and plot catalyst Elder Joseph Barlow ( engaging and puckish Alfred H. Wilson ). Each, in his own way, faces down Wilks' and Hicks' self-righteous pretensions. Both also knew Wilks and his family in the ghetto, and sting his conscience by their recollections. Gilmore smartly plays Wilks as soft-spoken, a listener and consensus-builder who reserves judgment about people, while Meredith's Hicks is loud, brash and dismissive. Parson emphasizes that crucial contrast. The Wilks persona also is shaped by his ambitious wife, Mame ( sharp Ann Joseph ), an important partner in his success.
"We've got to have rule of law; otherwise, we've got chaos! No one wants to live in chaos," says Wilks in a timely line. Those words might have been spoken by his grandfather, Caesar Wilks, the murderous ghetto enforcer in Wilsons's Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904. Coming from Caesar they would be threatening words, but spoken by his grandson they are ardently hopeful and represent his commitment to something larger than himself.
This Radio Golf will be a revelation to those, like me, who thought they knew it.