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Theater/Dance Last Updated: Jul 19th, 2009 - 22:15:57


Buppies On Stage
By Carol Chastang--SeeingBlack.com Theater Critic
Jun 9, 2009, 12:33

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“Radio Golf” was the late August Wilson’s last play and the final chapter of his decade-by-decade theatrical commentary on the African-American experience in the twentieth century. Unlike some of the other works in his 10-play cycle, like “Gem of the Ocean” and “The Piano Lesson” which carry a poetic and lyrical mysticism to tell the story of the struggle by the disenfranchised to attain the basic joys in life, some of the characters in The Studio Theater’s excellent staging of “Radio Golf” are breathing the rarefied air shared by those cynics whose success comes from knowing how to play the game.


Ivy League educated and nattily dressed, the charming Harmond Wilks (Walter Coppage) and his slick business partner Roosevelt Hicks (Kim Sullivan) are working on an ambitious plan to redevelop a portion of the blighted Hill District in Pittsburg. It’s 1997, and as they talk like two happy schoolboys about the Bedford Hills high-rise project—complete with a Starbucks and Whole Foods on the ground level—Roosevelt glides into a rhapsody about his two loves in life. “How much do you think Tiger makes a swing?” he grins, as he grips the golf club to practice his own moves.


Harmond is multi-tasking, running for Mayor of Pittsburg, and his ambitious wife Mame (Diedra LaWan Starnes) is supporting him, working the media in her power suit, figuring out ways to get the local television crews up to their office the Hill. The candidate, his wife and the business partner figure the gentrification project will bring them money, a favorable opinion from those who count, and votes.


The upwardly mobile African-Americans brought back to earth from their flights of fancy by “Elder” Joseph Barlow (the wonderful Frederick Strother). He needs a lawyer to defend him on a vandalism charge after he painted an abandoned house. “Somebody sent me up here, said you were a big man,” says Elder Joseph dryly, his eyes wandering the room and then sizing up Harmond. “I always wanted to be a big man.”


A longtime Hill District fixture, Elder Joseph chuckles when Harmond tells him he’s running for mayor. “They ain’t gonna let a black man be Mayor. And if you do become mayor, you know they’re gonna change the rules. Give you only half the keys.”


Elder Joseph’s observations about Harmond and his plans, as delivered by the actor Strother, are humorous and direct, and he brings a lively energy to every one of his scenes. There’s a subtle power that Elder Joseph exudes, but since he’s on the lower rung of the social ladder, Harmond and Roosevelt initially disregard him.


It turns out that the “abandoned” house —scheduled to be demolished—was located on the Bedford Hill property, and Harmond had bought the house before it went to auction after being repossessed for non-payment of taxes. The owner just happens to be Elder Joseph, who claims he was never informed about the back taxes.


Harmond offers Joseph $10,000 to go away so they can demolish the house, and he turns it down. The voice of The Hill—handyman Sterling Johnson (Erik Kilpatrick) tells Harmond and Roosevelt “you stole Joe Barlow’s house.”


Roosevelt is strictly in it for the money, but Harmond struggles with doing the right thing, not being a cannibal, and finding a solution. He suggests building around the house. The developers aren’t going for it, and the two business partners argue. The deal begins to crumble, along with Harmond’s mayoral bid, his friendship with Roosevelt, and his marriage. “All you had to do was follow the plan,” says Mame, sadly shaking her head. “You could have been Mayor Wilks, Governor Wilks, Senator Wilks.”


But by this time, and despite Mame’s disappointment, Harmond has found redemption and freedom, similar to the joy Roosevelt feels on the golf course, in reclaiming some values that were in danger of being sold to the highest bidder.


Radio Golf has been extended at The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington DC. For tickets call 202-332-3300 or visit the Website at www.studiotheatre.org.

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