Trinity Repertory Company has regained its reputation with a magnificent production of August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” which opened this week.
As I scribbled down adjectives, I ran out of them; gripping, powerful, exhilarating, raw, visceral, laugh out loud funny, wise, and occasionally breathtaking, is where I stopped.
The five performers across the board are excellent, but it is the return of Ricardo Pitts Wiley to Trinity, after he left years ago to form Mixed Magic Theater, that is a triumph. It is the role of his lifetime; to call it acting is to insult acting. Wiley actually becomes the wise, damaged man he plays.
Directed by Trinity’s new wanderkind, Jude Sandy (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “A Christmas Carol”), who is adept enough to get out of the playwright’s way and recognize that Wilson, the writer, is the smartest guy in the room, the show crackles with tension and release, conflict and care, wisdom and rotting; it dots the I’s of the black urban experience in the late 1990s, a doleful decade, their struggle to “walk into the door and get into the room at the club.”
This was Wilson’s last play of his 10-play cycle canon. As it was being mounted at Yale Repertory, Wilson was a sick man; five months later, he was dead. He never got to see a fully realized version of it. Had he seen this one, he would have been immensely proud, I think; especially of the fine work by lead Joe Wilson, Jr. (no relation) and Wiley, who transcend the weighty material (although some critics who study and stage the 10 plays of Wilson, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century, claim this is the “thinnest” of his scripts).
We are in the Hill district of Pittsburgh on a raggedy unit office set by Michael McGarty and Baron E. Pugh, the campaign headquarters of Harmond Wilks (Wilson) a privileged educated real estate developer, vying to be the city’s first black mayor. His driving wife Mame (a splendid Tonia Jackson) is vying to be press secretary of the governor. This is a couple on the move.
Wilks’ cohort and partner is Roosevelt Hicks (a tense and virulent Omar Robinson) a school pal who plays golf with whites and soon partners in business with them, willing to ignore clear tokenism for his ambition. The Hill is a black blight, about to made over with urban renewal – a new shopping center, housing a new Starbucks, Barnes & Nobles, and Whole Foods.
Wilks is going to renew the neighborhood, but in a series of meaty revelations and methods, he ends up renewing himself. He always “followed the plan” his disliked father set for him. But the smooth cat shown in the beginning will get wild after being woken up by the wisdom of people who had nothing of what he had.
He first partners for his own gain; then breaks a partnership for the community, swimming through a sea of ethical conflicts that will redefine his blackness, his family, brotherhood and loyalty to what was.
There is a wistfulness amidst the noise of the mounting tension of “Radio Golf;” a longing for what was once so good, depicted in several scenes, most notably the first time Wilks met Mame, expressed through the lyrical poetry of the playwright.
“The first time I saw Mame, it was raining. I thought she was going to melt. Like the rain hurt her. Like the two didn’t belong together…the injustice of it.”
The “injustice” of it, is best expressed by the two seemingly uneducated, but worldly wise characters, Elder Joseph Barlow, played by Wiley, who owns the old house at 1839 Wiley (another name coincidence) that the developers need to knock down to build their center.
He comes bursting in several times with monologues that first appear to be the ramblings of a dotty old coot, but bring a raucous wave of humor, pathos and wisdom in their sweep that eventually exposes the coldness of those who would destroy the history in their midst, the touchstone of the past (Barlow’s house was the home of a former slave, Aunt Esther, who inhabits, in some form, all of Wilsons’ 10 connected works).
Wiley’s speech about the American flag will draw tears.
The other worldly wise character is Sterling Johnson, a borderline criminal painter who is his own union; the part was to be played by Dereks Thomas, but the actor suffered a crippling injury two days before the show opened. Sandy’s assistant director JaMario Stills stepped in at the last possible moment, with script in hand, to provide a great rescue; drawing a perfect bead on the shifty character, dispensing Wilson’s poetic wisdom as he would have wanted.
Sterling tells the uppity Hicks he’s no n------, but a ‘Negro.’ “Negroes got blindeyetis. A dog knows it’s a dog. A cat knows it’s a cat. But a Negro don’t know he’s a Negro. He thinks he’s a white man.”
Wilks loses much as he determines his ethical center, his wife, friendship and business, falling into the rain-filled alley. How important is success if you lose your history or your soul?
“I can’t follow the plan this time. I’m afraid, if you turn away from what’s right, you won’t turn back,” he says.
In this world gone mad, the play’s message seems as timely as ever.
“Radio Golf” runs through March 1. www.trinityrep.com