In the 1990s, communism fell and conservatism rose, terrorism loomed and the economy boomed. And Radio Golf, the final play in the late August Wilson's epic 10-work cycle examining the African-American experience in the 20th century, one play for each decade, gives you a sense of America's mood as these events unfolded. It's all in the background, though: Wilson knew better than to try drawing drama from history's massive waves.
So, instead, Wilson puts real faces on the era, starting with his hero, Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix). Scion of a powerful Pittsburgh family, Harmond is getting ready to run for mayor of the city and has forged a plan with his friend and business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), to revive Pittsburgh's blighted Hill District. Once that happens, together with his politically astute wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), he'll go far — governor, senator, and beyond. He'll be the victory symbol for the whole 20th-century African-American journey.
And it's a measure of Wilson's dramatic skills that he needs only two characters — Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), Harmond's former classmate and now a handyman, and Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), called Old Joe — to create a worrisome undertow beneath everybody's smiles. Harmond owns derelict property on a district site where he and Roosevelt aim to build a luxury high-rise featuring a Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and Whole Foods. Old Joe, however, says the abandoned house is his — and he's right. How Harmond handles the situation, with Roosevelt and Mame pressuring him to value ruthlessness and greed before honesty, is also emblematic of the '90s and a disturbing end to Wilson's saga.
Still, Radio Golf never quite sweeps us away. For one thing, too many questions go unanswered: If Pittsburgh declared Old Joe's house abandoned due to nonpayment of taxes, where's he been living? And isn't it something of a contrivance that Harmond's father, unbeknownst to Harmond, was paying Old Joe's taxes because they're all kin?
Lennix, who bears a mild resemblance to former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, offers in the early scenes the pumped-up enthusiasm needed for Harmond, but as things wear on — especially as the various characters put the screws to him for doing right by Old Joe — it's Lennix, not Harmond, who seems overwhelmed. Williams is clearer about Roosevelt: In the '90s, it's every man for himself. If Roosevelt can become vice president of the local bank, partner with a wealthy grandee to buy a local radio station, and pioneer an entrepreneurial path of his own, why should he pay Sterling Johnson or Elder Joseph Barlow any mind?
Ah, that unforgiving streak of cruelty — that's very '90s, too, and director Kenny Leon ensures that you sense it whenever things are going too well. Just look at Pinkins, who exudes a riveting naturalism whenever she's on stage. Reprising their roles from the various regional productions of Radio Golf, Chisholm and Jelks have the juiciest opportunities to set the world straight. These are the roles for which Wilson has written his most impassioned verbal arias, ones reminding the audience that class struggles aren't solved over years but generations, and that just because one boat rises doesn't mean the fleet is sailing free.
Presented by Jujamcyn Theaters, Margo Lion, Jeffrey Richards/Jerry Frankel, Tamara Tunie/Wendell Pierce, Fran Kirmser, Bunting Management Group, Georgia Frontiere/Open Pictures, Lauren Doll/Steven Greil and the August Wilson Group, and Wonder City, Inc./Townsend Teague in association with Jack Viertel and Gordon Davidson
at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., NYC.
Opened May 8 for an open run. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (No matinee performance Wed., May 9. Additional performance Sun., May 13, 7:30 p.m.)
(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.
Casting by Stanczyk/Cherpakov Casting.