Metaphor is the soul of art, and playwright August Wilson was a master of metaphor. In a cycle of ten plays, each one set in a different decade in the lives of 20th century African-Americans, Wilson found material that not only enabled him to chronicle the trajectory of the African-American experience, but to plumb the moral geography that finally and necessarily confronts all Americans, no matter who they are.
Radio Golf is the last, culminating, play in Wilson’s cycle. Set in 1997, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the play pivots around Harmond Wilks (James Craven), a successful real estate developer who, with his partner, Roosevelt Hicks (David Alan Anderson), is on the verge of tearing down a section of the blighted neighborhood in order to build a high-rise block of condominiums and chain retail stores. Wilks believes this project will propel his bid to become the city’s first black mayor, an ambition keenly shared by his wife (Austene Van), a PR professional with political ambitions of her own. The deal is all but done when a couple of local characters show up: Sterling Johnson (Terry Bellamy), an ex-con-turned-handyman and Elder Joseph Barlow (the splendid Abdul Salaam El Razzac), an old-seeming street person, who is wise as he is cunning. Wilson creates in Elder a kind of chorus, with a voice calibrated to forge a conscience in Harmond Wilks’ as yet uncreated soul.
In Wilson’s hands, Elder’s character is no less brilliant for its being familiar. But the same can be said for the entire ensemble, who, within the confines of a single inner city redevelopment office, are able, through Lou Bellamy’s seamlessly adroit direction, to enact the ways in which power impinges on personal identity and distorts the stories we use to give that identity shape and what we tell ourselves is substance. A mystic power resonates through this naturalistic setting. Radio Golf is a language-rich play, with crackling dialogue that, by turns, is funny and breathtakingly eloquent. The virtuoso cast is nothing short of marvelous. It’s a brilliant way for the IRT to begin 2012 and sets a high standard other theaters will do well emulate throughout the rest of this year.