August Wilson's final play, 'Radio Golf,' is a story about immigration. Immigration, to most of us here, is usually defined as a group of people who have left their native country and made a new home in America.
Then there is the movement of people from one part of a country to another that is also referred to as a kind of immigration, such as the relocation of African-Americans from the South after the Civil War to the North. Wilson, however, addresses a third kind of immigration: the movement of the poor from ghettos into the white middle class.
Roosevelt Hicks is just such an immigrant, and though he knows that many other blacks consider him an Uncle Tom, and white people use him as a front for business ventures, he doesn't care: bank vice president, golf at the country club, owner of a Lexus. Life is good.
Roosevelt is a character making his way in 'Radio Golf,' and it is explosive. In the nine plays that preceded this one, chronicling the black experience in America from 1900 to the 1990s, racism has always been a subtext. This is the first one, however, in which Wilson has tackled the black-white issue head-on and written an in-your-face play.
Roosevelt's partner, the upwardly mobile Harmond Wilks -- a Barack Obama type -- played handsomely by the incomparable Harry Lennix, is running as the first black candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh, and his path for the future is crystal clear; that is, till the past knocks on the door of Bedford Hills Redevelopment office.
The necessary renewal of the Hill District, where all Wilson's plays are set, required that the last house standing in the way of progress be demolished. But itï¿½s that house that brings the play full circle. Harmond discovers roots and relationships he had forgotten, or perhaps, had not known. This was Aunt Esther's house (we meet her in 'Gem of the Ocean'), and it has taken on the symbolism of the day, forcing Harmond to grudgingly acknowledge that he must embrace the past even as he embraces the future.
Harmond's wife, however supportive she is of her husband, and played genuinely by Tonya Pinkins (last seen in the Tony-winning 'Caroline, or Change'), wants no part of that house, or the neighborhood. She has moved out and on, and says, "I wasn't born backwards."
Set in a run-down building that once housed an old gypsy cab company ("Jitney"), Harmond and Roosevelt work hard to make this urban renewal project a reality until crazy Elder Joe Barlow, played by the phenomenal Anthony Chisholm, quietly enters their headquarters and says itï¿½s his house -- he's got the deed to prove it and won't be bought out; he wants his house.
Sterling, former ne'er-do-well turned construction boss who's fixing up Old Joe's house, in a riveting performance by John Earl Jelks, comes to the man's defense, and brings it all to a flash point in a verbal conflagration with Roosevelt that pits black against black, poor against rich, ghetto culture against white culture.
The gasp from the audience attests to how startling is this confrontation. But if you listen carefully to each character, you realize that they're all right.
What, however, are people supposed to do when moving up and on? Take everyone with them? Are they supposed to? Is it even possible? Should they turn back and get them? Black America is the focus here; or is it bigger than Black America?
Wilson knew what he needed to do and he did it just before he died: changed the volume of this issue from a whisper to a shout. The two of us shouted about it the whole way home.
See 'Radio Golf' not just because it's entertaining -- Wilson writes wonderful comedy -- but because it puts into perspective the racial problems in America that are, in reality, all our problems.
What the press had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of THE NEW YORK TIMES: ï¿½Has the crackle of a bustling comedy crossed with an old-fashioned melodrama."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: "Smart, resonant and solidly entertaining production."
CLIVE BARNES of THe NEW YORK POST: "It makes for great theater."
JACQUES LE SOURD of the JOURNAL NEWS: "'Radio Golf' does not weigh in like a partly finished last gasp of a magisterial play-cycle. Indeed it may be the clearest and most accessible play of the lot. And the most rewarding. It is indeed a worthy farewell from August Wilson."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "A swift, engrossing drama brimming with Wilson's characteristic wisdom and humor."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY "The language in Radio Golf, set in 1997, lacks some of the musical majesty of Wilson's earlier plays, but .... The dialogue's rhythms still crackle, and we're reminded of the blend of folksy poetry and fierce conscience that made Wilson one of this country's most essential artists."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "What a journey it has been, and how grateful we are to have taken it."
ROBERT FELDBERG of the RECORD: "It's extremely funny, with several wonderful characters, but it also suffers from an overload of plot and has only modest dramatic punch."
ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "Despite a strong central performance by Harry Lennix and a superb supporting one by Anthony Chisholm, "Radio Golf" is too simplistic and top-heavy to rank in the upper strata of the Wilson canon"
JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Neither the characters nor the main topic and its resolution grabbed me. Sadly, with this play, a very considerable playwright goes out not with a bang but a whimper."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "This final chapter brings Wilson's amazing 10-play journey, one for each decade, to an emotional, hopeful conclusion. It's been an ambitious achievement, unlike anything the American theater has seen since the glory days of Eugene O'Neill."
FRANK SHECK of the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: "The work is both thoughtful and intelligent, and while it lacks the transcendently poetic dialogue and rich characterizations of its predecessors, it is certainly a respectable effort."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "Even if it's less emotionally fulfilling than earlier installments, "Radio Golf" brings the titanic undertaking of a great playwright to a somber, reflective conclusion. "
External links to full reviews from newspapers