Soul-satistying 'Radio Golf' at Trinity

By. F. William Oakes
Posted 2/11/20

Trinity Rep’s latest production “Radio Golf” is a wonderful and important evening of theatre. This show simply satisfies the soul on so many levels. Not only a vivid production of a …

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Soul-satistying 'Radio Golf' at Trinity


Trinity Rep’s latest production “Radio Golf” is a wonderful and important evening of theatre. This show simply satisfies the soul on so many levels. Not only a vivid production of a work of a great American playwright, “Radio Golf” showcases what Trinity Rep does best, it continues their tradition of bringing the works of the great August Wilson to the stage, marks a gifted directorial debut and, perhaps most welcome of all, heralds the return of the great actor Ricardo Pitts Wiley to the Trinity Rep boards.

Playwright August Wilson penned an extraordinary collection of plays dealing with the African American experience in the United States. Each of these ten plays deals with a different decade of the 20th century, two of these, “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. In “Radio Golf”, the last play of his cycle, the year is 1997 and we have reached that stage of the African-American journey when Harmond Wilks, a black real estate developer, is running for mayor of Pittsburgh. At the center of his campaign is a plan for much needed urban development, acquiring federal funds to transform a blighted neighborhood. To that end he has bought up abandoned properties but a problem develops when a man named Elder Joseph Barlow claims to own the lone ramshackle building still standing and refuses to vacate.

Barlow’s house is one of a series of seemingly ordinary objects in Wilson’s plays that contain talismanic properties. You “can’t do nothing with money but spend it”, but certain ordinary objects that feature prominently in Wilson’s plays — an old home, a piano, even a ham — are inherently tangible and represent a birthright and legacy, that which makes one justly aggrieved when it is unfairly taken away.

The legacy and birthright of African Americans form the subtext of Wilson’s works and each of his plays are highly concentrated epics with a lot to say about a variety of subjects, each idea meticulously crafted with high nuanced words. The characters here wrestle with inequity, inequality, on how to act “rightly or wrongly”, whether to tear down or to build up as a right course of action and the endless struggle of dealing with all the different degrees of racism. More than one character speaks of “common sense” with echoes here resounding of that essential essay from our nation’s founding written by Thomas Paine and the self-evident truths of the same nation long denied to people of color.

   Wilson was too masterful a writer to be as overt or heavy handed as my description, he crafts his tale well with nuanced words and a riveting story, slowly drawing you in to his character’s essential truths. TRC acting company member Jude Sandy, making his directorial debut here, understands that well, slowly letting the dramatic tension rise from a simmer to a boil.

   The entire cast is masterful, this is a shining example of the great ensemble work that Trinity Rep excels at. Joe Wilson, Jr. leads the cast as Harmond Wilks. Debonair onstage as always, here he makes for an insightful and inspired community leader dedicated to the greater good and fervently grappling the consequences, great and small. It is a measured, inspired performance.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is a marvel as Elder Joseph Barlow. He is an actor whose face can speak volumes without him having to say a word. But when he speaks he is spellbinding. He is an actor perfectly suited for Wilson’s play, his performance is as nuanced and as deeply textured as the writing and he is a force to be reckoned with onstage, a grizzled, funny and stubborn philosopher who forms the conscience of the play.

A heroic performance was delivered by the actor JaMario Stills who, two days before opening, stepped into the role of Sterling Johnson to replace an injured Derricks Thomas. Though he carried a script, he did so so deftly and gracefully that this seemed part of his persona. And he commanded the stage offering a fierce counterpoint to Harmond Wilks, speaking truth to power with clarity and verve.

Providing a different sort of contrast, Omar Robinson is sharp and deliberate as Roosevelt Hicks. As the business partner of Wilks, he’s the man who has bought into the game, trying to play it to his advantage, even as the system uses him.

 Tonia Jackson, as Mamie, grounds the play. She’s tether to the real earth for Harmond, and insists that he remember that. Tonia Jackson plays this role with grace and aplomb.

Playwright August Wilson’s ears and eyes were wide and all-encompassing. And it ain’t no surprise that his last play, set a mere 20 or so years ago, resonates in a world  where, daily, the difference between good and evil must be explained. “If you play the game well, they keep changing the rules” it is said in this play which also has the line “even the president has to pay taxes” delivered without irony. In addressing the black experience of the 20th century, Wilson slyly reminds the privileged of who has been driving that culture, and who has been exploited, especially by *well meaning* and *self serving* platitudes and ponders as well the essential question of what to do with this game, this structure, this civilization that keeps all in abeyance? Tear up or build down? Freedom or servitude? The final moments of this play answer well this question and provide a fitting coda to the last play of Wilson’s astounding 20th century play cycle.

“Radio Golf “ at Trinity Repertory Company. Now through March 1st. See listings for details.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.