BWW Reviews: August Wilson's Powerful, Profound RADIO GOLF at American Stage

By: Jan. 26, 2015

I'm still reeling. I saw RADIO GOLF at American Stage on Friday night, and try as I may, I just can't let go of the show and its characters. It's one of the most powerful theatrical experiences--August Wilson's last stand and last word on black culture throughout the last century. Written in 2005, just months before the playwright would succumb to cancer, it's one of those shows where you think about it constantly afterwards and want to go back to the beginning of Wilson's famed Pittsburgh Cycle (starting with Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904) and start all over again. (Thankfully, American Stage has two more Wilson shows on its schedule in the coming seasons--Jitney next year and Joe Turner's Come and Gone the season after that--so that will help with our August Wilson fix.)

In the meantime, there's RADIO GOLF, and it's not enough to say don't miss this show. It's not enough to say "run, don't walk" to see it. It's not enough to say that this will be one of the most profound theatrical experiences you will have all year. It's not enough to say anything that captures the thrill, the gooseflesh chill of top acting in a beautifully written show. All I can do is tell you why I feel that this is one of the finest shows I have had the pleasure of reviewing for Broadway World. And it will be your loss to miss this incredible experience with a top-flight cast that nails every word, every pause, every moment.

It's the fastest two hours and fifty minutes that I have ever had at the theatre.

Set in 1997, RADIO GOLF focuses on Harmond Wilks, the potential first black mayor of Pittsburgh, who along with wife, Mame, and friend Roosevelt Hicks, vice president of Mellon Bank, want to save Pittsburgh's rundown Hill District. They actually want to "rebuild" the area and put in a medical center named after the first black registered nurse in the area, Sarah Degree, as well as a Whole Foods, Barnes & Nobles and Starbucks. But a major problem arises. A dilapidated house that they want to demolish for their dream project, a home of significant history, actually belongs (legally) to someone else, an elderly man that goes by the name Ol' Joe. Will Harmond buy the old man out in order to get rid of the eyesore? Will he turn his back on his race and live the (financially lucrative) dreams of the white man? Or, in the end, will Harmond wind up doing the right thing and join the oppressed, the fighters, providing a voice for the voiceless and ultimately saving his community's history (and his soul)?

As Wilks, Alan Bomar Jones holds the show together. He is a strong presence, filling the stage with his rock-solid stature. His character changes the most, so we get to see his evolution from an Ivy League educated man who wins at everything to a man who can make the choice--and sacrifice--to do right. Near the end of the play, when he is instructed by his wife to "follow the plan," he explodes in an intense, cathartic diatribe that shakes the walls. It's an incredible performance, more subtle than some of the others onstage and therefore more difficult than the other showier, more theatrical roles. It would lose so much without an actor of Jones' strength in this all-important, anchoring role.

As his friend and societal up-and-comer Roosevelt Hicks, Kim Sullivan owns the stage. He speaks with true authority, and his energy knows no bounds. When he's around the theatre comes alive, sparked by the character's love of all things that matter to him as he climbs and slimes to the top of the material world--money, power, prestige (but at what cost?) Sullivan truly showcases his characters' total immersion and love of his status as a black man in upper white society. The actor takes quite a journey as well, and we see how money and power blind him from what truly matters in life.

As Wilks' wife, Mame, Chrystal Bates does a fine job. She starts off slow, but in Act 2, she has a scene that is so brilliantly performed that it will tear you apart. Her speech to her husband where she says "you jumped but I'm falling too" is one of the show's many breathless highlights.

As Sterling, Wilks' childhood friend who has seen prison time and is on the other side of the argument and social class, the actor ranney is a revelation. (He has performed in nine August Wilson productions, including the role of Hambone in Two Trains Running at American Stage.) He's powerful in Act 1, but Act 2 belongs to him. This is a performance that left me shaken, thrilled, talking of little else afterwards. His speech to Roosevelt Hicks about "Negroes" ("Negroes are the worst thing in God's creation") kept me on the edge of my seat, literally. I sat there, inching forward, closer toward the stage, so moved by Wilson's words and ranney's performance.

It's hard to pick a "best" in a cast like this--everyone is spot on, top of the game, an ensemble if ever there was one. But Anthony Chisolm in his role as Elder Joseph Barlow (Ol' Joe) is so mesmerizing that he would be my choice, especially in Act 1. This is the role of a lifetime, and I know of no other actor who could match the excellence of what Chisolm brings to the part. It's unlike anything else I've seen onstage in recent years. It goes beyond acting. It is a total absorption into Ol' Joe's persona, and we can't take our eyes off of him. August Wilson created the character that will not be soon forgotten, and Chisolm more than does it justice--he creates magic. Yes, he was Tony-nominated for the same role in 2007, but even that accolade does not prepare us for the splendor of this performance.

Mark Clayton Southers is the director, and we have him to thank for this brilliantly staged, extraordinarily acted show. August Wilson is hands down the finest playwright of the past thirty years, and it takes someone who cares and understands the power of his genius to not just bring it to life, but to bring it to life properly. Southers has more than done that with this exceptional production.

Saidah Ben-Judah's costumes succeed, especially Mame's colorful garments (her red dress matching the bright red lips). Steve Mitchell's scenic design is incredible, with a stage littered with boxes and crates (and as seen from a large glass window, a view of the Hill, including an impounded automobile, that just appears so real). Jerid Fox's props are very much appreciated, especially the golf bag lamp and Pittsburgh Steelers mug.

The music that played before the show and between scenes worked quite well, and I appreciate that the creators have done their homework (Will Smith's "Getting Jiggy With It" plays pre-show, and since the play is set in 1997 it's good to hear songs that came out that year; I'm happy to report that there are no anachronisms in the soundtrack, which usually happens in shows but thankfully not here). However, I could have done without the faint Taps being playing during one of Ol' Joe's monologues; it just seemed to be piling on, and the actor is so staggering that he and the beautifully written monologue just do not need it. Perfection is perfection; Taps just seemed unnecessary and forced.

RADIO GOLF is the real deal. A prolonged standing ovation followed the opening night performance, the audience rushing to its feet to reward the cast for their extraordinary work. Although standing ovations seem to be de rigueur these days, in this instance, the honor of such an enthusiastic ovation is well deserved.

RADIO GOLF at American Stage runs through February 22nd. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).

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