August Wilson’s Radio Golf applies radical traditions in assessing racial, economic progress

CHICAGO—Because so many of the dynamics of America’s racist past persist into the present, even the earliest of August Wilson’s plays in the Century Cycle, the ten plays the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright wrote covering each decade of the twentieth century, speak with a freshness and relevance to our contemporary moment even as they capture their specific eras in American, specifically African-American, history.

The Court Theatre’s current production of Radio Golf, the cycle’s last play, representing the 1990s, however, has a special relevance to our contemporary moment. It invites us to reflect deeply on what constitutes racial and economic progress, and how exactly we define and measure it. The intense performances and interactions among the actors dramatize the conflicts and dialogues within African America, and also the tensions within individual characters as they struggle with and against “white” colonial models of success that don’t necessarily further the welfare of African Americans collectively.

Ron OJ Parson’s direction brilliantly emphasizes and refocuses us on the collective interest, as opposed to the individual ascensions of some African Americans, in teasing out the radical politics of self-determination that once characterized African-American political movements for freedom as well as civil and human rights. Parsons asks us to re-think success through the vision of these earlier moments of political activism and struggle. I was struck, when the five actors emerged together for their curtain call, at the compact and intimate economy of the drama: There are only five characters in this play, that takes place in one small space, though in many ways the play feels so big in both space and historical scope. That is the wonder of theater Parson and the cast make come alive.

The crux of the play swirls around the return of Harmond Wilks (Allen Gilmore), mayoral candidate, to the African-American working-class neighborhood of Bedford Hills in Pittsburgh, which he claims as his native neighborhood but where he has not lived in years. He has opened his redevelopment office in the Hills with his college buddy Roosevelt Hicks (James Vincent Meredith).

Immediately, small controversies emerge, and cracks appear among this small group of community members, which I believe Wilson means to represent its various attitudes and perspectives. Mame (Ann Joseph), for example, who is both Harmond’s wife and campaign manager, complains that his office should be in the more upscale and populous Shadyside, not in the less affluent and declining Hills with fewer voters. This dialogue raises questions about what it means to represent and serve an entire African-American constituency across classes, as opposed to focusing primarily on the votes and interests of the more affluent constituencies. Even Harmond, who is in some real sense trying to reconnect with and serve this community, has grown distant from it, exemplified when he explains to Mame, “Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight.” He doesn’t seem to grant the members of this community full humanity or see them as active agents capable of self-determination, of shaping their own world.

This issue is layered and elaborated as each character comes upon the scene. When Roosevelt Hicks enters the office—the single set for the whole play—he immediately worries about the safety of his car, indicating mistrust and antagonism toward the people of the community he is here to redevelop. Indeed, he implies that the people of this less affluent area are lazy, complaining that someone he offered five dollars just to watch his car wanted to know how long he would be expected to watch it. Class and cultural differences and attitudes become sharpened, as we see the judgments, antagonisms, and competing values that both fracture African America and offer different pathways to success and progress for the audience to evaluate.

This is true in the relationship between Harmond and Roosevelt as well: Harmond hangs a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., behind his desk on one side of the stage, and Roosevelt hangs one of Tiger Woods on the other. In rough terms, Wilson is exposing a dichotomy of motivations: One, the desire to organize and uplift a community, and the other, the drive of individual upward mobility and personal success.

Each sees his pathway as the most effective way to serve African America. Roosevelt, a mover and shaker and vice-president of a bank who also, in the course of the play, becomes with a white investor part owner of a radio station that caters mainly to an African-American audience, believes he moves his people forward by providing a model and clearing a pathway through his personal success. Harmond believes he can improve the community through redevelopment and through addressing social problems by achieving the power of political office so he can represent his people.

The problem Wilson poses with each of these characters’ desires to represent their community is that, on some level, each is divorced from the Hill residents and largely unaware of and unreceptive to their needs, aspirations and interests. Their attitude is somewhat condescending and at times even disrespectful toward the residents, as if they know better. This stance is underscored by the fact that, in order to go through with the redevelopment project and make good on their investment, they are trying to get the Hills designated by the government as a “blighted” area, assuming the residents live in degraded conditions and need external salvation.

This dynamic becomes clear as the remaining characters, Elder Joseph Barlow (Alfred H. Wilson) and Sterling Johnson (James T. Alfred), appear. Old Joe, as he is called, enters the office somewhat comically, looking for “Christian folk,” as he couldn’t find any good Christians at the mission, just people who condescended to and judged him—sound familiar? We learn that he is the one Harmond and Roosevelt earlier the play had been talking about who has been painting a house which the Bedford Hills Re-Development Company supposedly owns and which is scheduled to be torn down.

This, as you might guess, is what heats up the action. It turns out a notification wasn’t properly processed when the redevelopment company bought the house that Old Joe legally owns, as he has believed all along, never knowing it had been bought out from under him. Needless to say, he has no interest in selling his house, as money is no substitute for his home, his neighborhood, and his relationships. Sterling Johnson is the neighborhood handyman who is helping him paint the house, and they continue to work on the house throughout the play, despite Roosevelt’s insistence that it will be torn down. The refusal to sell throws a wrench in the development plan to build luxury apartments with a Starbucks, a Whole Foods, and a Barnes and Noble. Wilson and Alfred give the most animated, humorous, but also intensely wise and serious performances in their absolutely compelling portrayals.

Here, then, is the clash of values, of classes within African America, and of definitions of success.

But the real questions raised by Wilson’s play are who gets to determine the values by which a community lives and who gets to control the resources. Roosevelt and Harmond have planned the redevelopment without consulting the people who live in Bedford Hills, as if the residents are relics or zombies. Old Joe even tells Harmond about the old park where the people want lights so kids can play, but Harmond tells him the plan is to put in a golf driving range, which was neither the decision nor the desire of the residents.

Plus, the planned redevelopment, while it would line the pockets of Roosevelt and Harmond, would displace the current residents, not improve their lives. The playwright asks if having a few African Americans achieve wealth or get elected to public office really represents economic and social progress for African America. Moreover, it turns out, Roosevelt is in league with a white investor who seemingly has partnered with him so he can avail himself of certain business opportunities open to minorities, posing the question of who is really in charge.

This is part of the significance of golf in the play. Both Roosevelt and Harmond enjoy golf, and Roosevelt speaks compellingly about how he feels free when he plays golf because he is now able to enter spaces and hence enjoy freedoms he could not previously. Indeed, golf is a historically white game, characterized by racially exclusive spaces, such as country clubs. So we can sympathize with Roosevelt. At the same time, the play asks us if Roosevelt and Harmond, in adapting themselves to the white game of golf, are not also in their actions adapting themselves to the rules and ethics of a white economy, with its individualist conceptions of success rooted in capital accumulation.

In this sense, the play returns us to a kind of 1960s Black nationalist politics rooted in the values of self-determination, for Wilson really represents the residents of Bedford Hills as threatened by a kind of colonization, which here goes by the euphemism of “redevelopment.” We are invited to bring to bear models of imperialism to understand the dynamics of the play. In imperialist ventures, the colonizing nation develops alliances with the elites of the native population (the so-called “comprador class”) to be complicit in the subjugation and exploitation of the masses.

This is effectively what is going on with the Bedford Hills Re-Development Company. Indeed, in an intense confrontation in the play, Sterling lines his face with paint as he stands up to Roosevelt, letting us know that he has learned from the Cochise how to adorn his face with war paint. This linking of this working-class African-American working-class experience with the Native American experience makes clear the way the play is asking us to understand these processes of gentrification as a colonizing process, whether done by whites or Blacks, and to question the extent to which progress can be measured in individual as opposed to collective terms.

Harmond becomes the central figure who must think through these complexities and, in his sincere commitment to Dr. King’s revolutionary principles, decide which side he will be on. And this applies to his marriage as well, where he makes decisions that impact his wife without her input, denying her self-determination.

At a time when we seem to get further and further away from democracy, drifting toward authoritarianism, Radio Golf stands as important drama for our time, asking us to assess what progress we’ve really made in achieving our supposed ideals.

Radio Golf is being performed at the Court Theater on the University of Chicago campus through October 6. See here for further information.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.