Groundbreakers

Radio Golf ; bobrauschenbergamerica ; I Am My Own Wife
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  September 20, 2006


RADIO GOLF: Potent — and unusually straightforward for Wilson.

When Radio Golf, the last link of August Wilson’s great track through the 20th century, was laid in spring of 2005 at Yale, the ghost that hovered over it was that of Aunt Ester, the 300-plus-year-old Pittsburgh Hill District seer whose birth date corresponds with the arrival of African slaves on American shores. As the Huntington Theatre Company mounts the play 16 months later, the ghost in the rafters is that of Wilson, who died last October at 60, soon after completing this final piece of his grand project chronicling decade by decade the African-American experience of the last 100 years. It’s a monumental achievement, Wilson’s 25 years of plumbing what he considered the inexhaustible well of black life. The 1997-set Radio Golf (at the Boston University Theatre through October 15) is not Wilson’s crowning achievement; that would be Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a top god in the pantheon of American playwriting. But if this story of lucre-lined “redevelopment” at war with down-at-heels but sacrosanct tradition lacks the musicality and rich spiritual patina of Wilson’s finest work, it is nonetheless potent — and unusually straightforward for the playwright, whose style could be digressive. And having seen the play at Yale, I can report that Wilson, a writer for whom creation was an ongoing conversation with himself, his characters, his collaborators, did not let liver cancer get in the way of his making it better.

In Radio Golf, Wilson takes on the upwardly mobile black middle class. Real-estate executive and mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks and bank vice-president Roosevelt Hicks are partners in Bedford Hills Redevelopment, which is on the verge of erecting a major project in the Hill District, complete with Barnes & Noble and Starbucks. Just two bricks need to fall into place: the Hill District must be declared “blighted,” so that the project qualifies for federal funds, and the “raggedy-ass” house at 1839 Wylie Avenue must be razed. One of the highlights of the production is the cocky, ecstatic Fats-Waller-meets-frat-man dance the former Cornell roommates do when word comes that the neighborhood of their youth has been officially declared blighted. But as aficionados of Wilson need not be told, the destruction of 1839 Wylie, where Aunt Ester guided Citizen Barlow to the “City of Bones” in Gem of the Ocean, is another matter. And when an elderly man turns up and starts painting the edifice, which he claims to own despite Harmond’s assurance that he bought the place from the city for unpaid taxes, the battle in on: between legal skullduggery and moral right, between tearing down one’s cultural legacy and building on it.

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