It's a sign of things to come in the first scene of August Wilson's Radio Golf when Hazel Edmond's Mame, the bright and politically ambitious wife of Harmond Wilks, an emerging, politically connected real estate mogul, doesn't recognize the worth of the antique embossed tin ceiling tiles in her husband's construction office. It isn't the only value to either go unrecognized or be brought up for reassessment by different characters during this, the final work in Wilson's epic Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays that covered each decade of the 20th century in the city's historically African-American Hill District.
Harmond, who has an eye on the mayor's seat, and Roosevelt Hicks, his business partner and former college roommate, are on the verge of closing a $5 million urban redevelopment deal. Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble and Starbucks have all bought into their toney mixed-use project.
All that remains is to bulldoze a strip of abandoned buildings in a district long subsumed by urban blight—including one house that will come to represent a community now all but vanished, and a historical marker in three characters' lives. Is there a problem here? You bet there is.
As Wilson looks back at the 1990s, he sees a time when higher education has brought more affluence and political power to African-Americans than at any period in the past. It's also a world at the dawn of a now-infamous real estate bubble, in which overreaching, large-scale redevelopments will erase entire neighborhoods and, with them, whole chapters of a region's history.
The questions the situation raises are profound: How can community and history possibly survive as abiding values when both can be so easily removed? And, should they disappear, what values will take their place? A few clues unfold during this compelling production of Radio Golf at Deep Dish Theater. The answers are not entirely comforting.
As embodied by Elder Joseph Barlow, a crazy-like-a-fox character of a kind Wilson seemingly puts in every play, and Sterling Johnson, a local tough who may or may not have grown up to make something more of himself, the past won't go quietly. That's actually something of an understatement, given the direct challenge Sterling (a memorably forceful Phillip Bernard Smith) issues when a house owned by Barlow (played by a seasoned Warren Keyes) is threatened with demolition at the end of the first act.
But in this world, the money is given much of the power, and most of it is held on stage by Hicks, a newly minted Mellon Bank vice president, whom the script (and Nilan Johnson's performance, under Kathryn Hunter-Williams' direction) identifies early on as a mouth, a mooch and a man loyal only to his own interests, despite repeated lip service to the contrary.
One of the few traits keeping Hicks safely out of the realm of stock villain-hood is the poignancy Johnson brings to his character's account of his first truly liberating experience—hitting a golf ball and watching it fly. We sense Hicks' desperation to achieve that sort of flight for himself is as deep-seated, and blinding, as his hunger to join the realm of the truly rich and powerful. After a descendant from slaves remarks in a conversation about Tiger Woods, "I wish Nike would buy a piece of me," by play's end all can see what he has ultimately sold.
Mike Wiley gives integrity to the character of Harmond Wilks, a businessman whose conscience is challenged by the claims of the past. In Wilks' confrontations with Barlow, Johnson, Hicks and his own wife, the values given to family, friendship and fairness are weighed as carefully as the claims of political expedience and, ultimately, money itself. The result is a workout for actors—and audience. Strongly recommended.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fairway to heaven."