Monday, October 6, 2014

theatre review RADIO GOLF, Black Theatre Troupe, September 26

Click here to read my review at Talkin' Broadway of Radio Golf

(clockwise from top) Calion Maston, T.A. Burrows, Lillie Richardson, Kwane Vedrene and Roosevelt Watts
Playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle consists of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 1900’s. While Wilson’s characters in the plays represent the African American experience in America throughout the 20th Century, the ten dramas are significant to anyone regardless of their race as they focus on common experiences we either have an awareness of or have experienced. The final play in the cycle, Radio Golf, which touches upon the effect that assimilation by African-Americans into the white community has on the possibility to forget their ties to their past, is receiving an impressive production from the Black Theatre Troupe in downtown Phoenix with an excellent cast and confident direction.

Wilson won multiple awards for the plays, including two Pulitzers and a Tony. All but one of the plays are set in the Hill district of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born and raised, yet the themes the plays cover and trials and tribulations the characters encounter are relevant to any economically depressed area in cities worldwide. While Fences is probably the most well-known play from the series, Radio Golf proves itself to be just as effective in bringing to life the struggles of individuals trying to survive but realizing that in order to move forward they have to learn from their past.
It’s 1997 and the Ivy League educated lawyer Harmond Wilks is preparing to run to be the first black mayor of Pittsburgh while also setting in motion plans to redevelop the poverty stricken Bedford Hills district with a multi-million dollar shopping and housing complex. With his ambitious wife Mame and former college roommate Roosevelt by his side it seems all is on track for success. But then an old man called “Old Joe” Barlow shows up claiming that he owns a house that Wilks bought for the project. With plans already in place to demolish the house for the development, Barlow’s continual claim that he owns the house could prevent the project from moving forward. The play follows Wilks' actions as he slowly learns that the house and the man may just have more significance than he originally thought.

The beauty of Wilson’s writing is in his ability to not only represent different views and voices within the African American urban environment but also in how he shows two sides to a situation where, while the values of right and wrong are obvious, the correct answer isn’t always that clear. Is it better to honor one’s past to fight to keep things the way they once were or allow a community to move forward to a better and hopeful, yet possibly uncertain, future? Is it wrong to have dreams of becoming rich and successful or does money and power just cloud your past connections and the people you had to step over to get to where you are? Is a black person selling out, or just a smart businessman, if they align themselves with a white man to help propel them both along the road to success? Does having money truly make you a better person? Radio Golf brings up all of those questions and more with Wilson’s eloquent dialogue richly painting the struggle that they raise.

Director David Hemphill expertly guides his exceptional cast to allow all of those questions to rise up to the surface, some percolating fast to the top, with others a slow boil, and lets the conflict the questions raise to continue to build until a successful conclusion. Hemphill does a good job with the flow of the piece, letting the humorous moments get big laughs yet ensuring the dramatic moments have resonance. He also directs his cast to instill a combination of vocal inflection, body language and comedy into the many interactions the characters have – all to great effect that heightens the encounters.

As Harmond, Kwane Vedrene has the difficult role of being on stage for almost every scene yet having to be the calm person while more colorful personalities revolve around him. He has the appropriate mayoral demeanor to listen to the people who wander into his office, even when he knows they are wasting his time. Yet Vedrene also lets us know through his body language that Harmond is frustrated and agitated by Old Joe and the street wise handyman Sterling who continue to show up in Harmond’s office. Vedrene also skillfully shows us this well-educated man who wants to do the right thing even if it means he has to go against the people around him.

T.A Burrows shows a considerable range as Old Joe. He has the ability to make us believe Joe is both crazy and sane, the victim as well as the wise instigator. Burrows is also a gifted comic, ensuring Old Joe's well-crafted humorous lines pop. But he also imparts wisdom into some of Wilson's best lines with a confident delivery. Joe is an old timer who stands his ground and Burrows is exceptional in the part.

Lillie Richardson is quite effective as the supportive wife Mame. She perfectly shows Mame's great strength for her husband, as well as her independence from him with her steely posture and matter of fact way of speaking. Richardson also imparts Mame with realistic, concerned looks as things start to spiral out of control.

Roosevelt Hicks idolizes Tiger Woods and is obsessed with the status that playing golf and having business cards and an impressive title brings with it and Calion Maston is exceptional in bringing this success obsessed man to life. The former ex-con, handyman Sterling says he’s been “going in the back door all of my life” and Roosevelt Watts is perfect as this man who Wilson presents as the voice of the working class community. Like Burrows, Watts is exceptional with his delivery of Sterling's humorous lines but also the verbal sparring that he and Maston have in the second act crackles like fireworks.

With building plans on the wall and a selection of mismatched furniture, Thom Gilseth's set design realistically shows a new office just set up for the development project in a run-down part of the Hill district. Mario Garcia has created an impressive number of “power suits” for Harmond and Roosevelt and some colorful ensembles for Mame to successfully show their upper middle class status. Just as effective are the working class clothes for Old Joe and Sterling. While there is just one set for the production, the scene changes at the opening night performance did suffer some delays. I’m not certain if that was due to the actors having to change costumes between the scenes or something else, but hopefully those delays will be quickly ironed out with more performances under their belts.

You don’t need to have seen any of the other plays in the cycle, or know that some of the characters spoken about or featured in Radio Golf appear in other plays in the series in order to enjoy the play. Though, knowing that the house that Old Joe claims he owns is the same house featured in the earliest set play in the series Gem of the Ocean shows how the use of the house is a nice way for Wilson to bookend the cycle with the house still standing 100 years later.

With dialogue that is both humorous and elegant and a clear statement that it’s fairly easy to know what is “right and wrong” and, to quote a line from Harmond’s mayoral speech, that “no one is above the law,” Wilson paints a fairly effective picture of the modern struggles between the working class and the middle class in urban African American towns in Radio Golf. The Black Theatre Troupe production of the play has an exceptional cast and refined direction that successfully shows how sometimes the best way to move forward is to not forget the past.

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Radio Golf runs through October 12th, 2014 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 602 258-8129

Photo: Laura Durant 

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