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August Wilson’s Radio Golf Is Beautifully Staged, with an Outstanding Cast, at Pure Life Theatre

“This is business. This is the way it’s done in
America.” — Roosevelt Hicks in
Radio Golf

Pure Life Theatre director Jamal Farrar brings us a beautifully staged version of August Wilson’s Radio Golf, performed by an outstanding cast. https Radio Golf is the final entry in playwright Wilson’s Century Cycle — a collection of plays considered a crowning achievement in American theater.

Wilson wrote 10 plays in the cycle — one for each decade of the 20th century — capturing the Black Experience in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA. This play first came to the stage in 2005, the same year as the playwright’s death at age 60. Radio Golf traces the forces of change on a neighborhood and its people. It’s the story of a successful entrepreneur who aspires to become Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. But the past begins to catch up with him, and secrets are revealed that could be his undoing.

When the curtain rises, it is 1997. Harmon Wilks (played by Mike Harrison), a well-educated black man who inherited his father’s real estate business, has partnered with his friend and avid golfer, Roosevelt Hicks (TJ Swann). Roosevelt, a new vice president of Mellon® Bank, sees golf as his path to the world of wealth and prestige.

Together, Wilks and Hicks hope is to launch the federally funded Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, designed to transform their old neighborhood — the long-blighted Hill District of Pittsburgh. At the same time, Wilks is running for mayor. Helping him is his upwardly mobile wife, Mame (Tyanna West), who puts her own career on hold to serve as his campaign manager.

The Bedford Hills plans include apartment towers and some trendy retail anchors (among them, Whole Foods and Starbucks®) that are sure to bring economic improvement to the district. But there is a problem. A long-abandoned old house still sits on the development site. Its owner, Elder Joseph Barlow (Gerald Campbell), has no intention of letting it go, even if Wilks is willing to pay him fair market value.

Backing up “Old Joe” in his battle against the powers that be is Sterling Johnson (Robert Cotton), a construction worker and “one-man union.” Wilks suggests that the project be revised to incorporate the old house as an homage to the neighborhood’s history. But both Roosevelt and Mame reject the idea, claiming it will put the whole project in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Wilks resents Roosevelt for teaming up with a corrupt white businessman who is using him as the “black-face” front man in a deal that will enable him to buy a radio station more cheaply because of a minority tax incentive.

August Wilson’s monologues are gorgeous. A favorite takes place early in the show when Roosevelt wields his golf putter while delivering an “aria” about his love of the game. TJ Swann brings a charming arrogance that often appears with newfound success.

Robert Cotton’s monologues deftly capture the crazy past of a man who has made mistakes: “So, I robbed that bank. I had some money. It didn’t make me smarter. It didn’t make me better than anybody else.” As Barlow, the old man in search of a true Christian, Gerald Campbell’s monologues are some of the funniest and most endearing. The American Flag monologue is a show highlight, augmented beautifully by Juan Isler’s sound design.

Mike Harrison brings a thoughtful, natural charm to Wilks, who strives to do the right thing: “I’m going to be the mayor of everybody.” His monologue about the old house is sweet and powerful: “It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation.”

Tyanna West plays the character of Wilks’ wife, Mame — the only female character in the play. We wish Wilson had allowed Mame to appear more often. Her last scene with Wilks is especially strong: “You jumped, but I am falling too.”

The play takes place in a construction office, with set design by Deb Royals and scenic painting by Jeannine Borzello. Decor touches such as a campaign poster, blueprints, golf memorabilia, Ebony magazines, and an old coffeemaker provide the right amount of personality and shabby charm.

Janaya Farrar’s lighting design augments the key dramatic moments and moods. Costume designer Deb Royals and costume supervisor Jadyn Farrar have captured the styles of the late 1990’s in a way that perfectly expresses the personalities of each character.

The production stage manager is LaNeisha Farrar, who keeps the cues moving smoothly in this fast-paced show. Dramaturge Terra Hodge opens the show on-video, providing insightful context for what is about to occur.

Which characters opt for the moral choice over the enriching one? Who exactly is the hero? August Wilson pulls back the curtain to reveal how the deck is stacked against the race, even when a certain level of success has been achieved. He shows us how money corrupts absolutely, and how taking the moral stand involves sacrifice.

Of note: This play contains adult language. By using the word “Negro”, as well as the N-word, Wilson reminds us of the wounding history those words can signify when used by black men against each other.

Be sure to catch this production. It’s a show with a good double-base foundation. I am looking forward to Pure Life Theatre’s next 2021-22 season offering: the musical Purlie which opens on Friday, Sept. 10th.

7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Sunday, June 27th: August Wilson’s Radio Golf (In Person), directed by Jamal Farrar and starring Tyanna West as Mame Wilks and Mike Harrison as Harmond Wilks (Pure Life Theatre n the Historic Royal Bakery Building, 3801 Hillsborough St., Suite 113, Raleigh NC 27607). LENGTH: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission. TRAILERS: and TICKETS: $22 ($20 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $15 per person for groups of 10 on more. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-839-9505 or PLEASE DONATE TO: Pure Life Theatre.

NOTE: Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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