"So this is it," the first line in this August Wilson play, has a double meaning. The character, Mame Wilks, is disparaging her husband's new office in Pittsburgh's run-down Hill District. But it's also Wilson's pronouncement that his 10-play opus about the African-American experience throughout the 20th century is—after almost 25 years—complete. Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group has produced seven plays in the series. And while Radio Golf may not be the best of the bunch, it's overwhelming evidence that Wilson remains one of the top American playwrights. Brought to life by one of the best ensembles in recent memory and crisply directed by Kenny Leon, Wilson's script is an urban poem that elicits laughter, tears, and anger—sometimes all at once.
The plot is small in scope. It's 1997, and real-estate developer Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll) is finalizing his plans with business partner Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) to build an attractive apartment building. Harmond also is planning to run for mayor, and his wife Mame (Denise Burse) will lead the campaign. But there's a hitch. Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) claims he owns a house on the development site, which is scheduled for demolition. And Barlow receives support from carpenter and former convict Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks)—who also was featured in Wilson's Two Trains Running.
The cast makes the most of Wilson's words. Carroll infuses Harmond, the play's focal point, with a tough emotional exterior while sharing brief glimpses of a caring soul. Williams' comic timing as Roosevelt lightens the tone of several heavy scenes. As Sterling, Jelks gradually and authentically transitions from reserved to antagonistic. And Burse, as the lone woman in the cast, gives Mame a much-needed sense of power. But it's Chisholm as Elder Joseph Barlow who commands the stage every time he speaks. Barlow straddles the line between philosopher and lunatic, and Chisholm is so believable he appears not to be acting. Leon directs authoritatively, pushing the characters and the action with increasing force as the story builds to its climax. The plot lacks the epic proportions and intricacies of Wilson's previous Gem of the Ocean. But it's compelling, and it alerts audiences that while Wilson's 10-play series is finished, the playwright has a lot left to say.
"Radio Golf," presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7 p.m. Also Wed. 2:30 p.m. Sep. 14. Dark Sun. 7:30 p.m. Sep. 18. Aug. 11-Sep. 18. $34-52. (213) 628-2772.