Wrecking Ball Blues
|Photo by Craig Schwartz|
You can tell from his plays that August Wilson must have Irish blood, from the way his characters amble about, crack jokes and tell stories. In Radio Golf (the closing episode of Wilsons 10-play cycle now at the Taper), if they werent all African-American in a run-down Pittsburgh neighborhood circa 1997, youd think they were villagers in a play by Sean OCasey or John Millington Synge not just from the stories but from the way theyre laced with satire, from their colloquial eloquence, and from the pulpit Wilson gives his characters to sound off arias as the lights around them slightly fade.
Radio Golf isnt a perfect example of Wilsons neoclassical structure; it suffers from a fleeting drag-y lapse in each of its two acts. The play is nonetheless a little jewel, for its glittering economy of ideas, for the unpresuming way it speaks about everything important thats happened in this country over the past two decades the series of ethical abnegations made for the sake of commerce and profit: Without addressing it directly, Radio Golf conjures the recent Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain that allowed a private company to seize and destroy private homes for speculative investment, because that speculative investment a mall in a non-blighted, working-class area now rises to the standard of public interest; because a mall, even an empty one, now has the same social value as a hospital or a highway. No court case in recent memory so encapsulates our expanding worship of commerce and privatization über alles. Wilsons characters wake up to the realization that after selling their principles, others still hold the countrys wealth, and thats a rude awakening.
Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll) is running for mayor. He also has real estate holdings in a redevelopment project requiring the destruction of a decrepit, abandoned house, which the city seized when the owner reneged on paying the property taxes. The redevelopment plans are drawn up, which we see: sketches of a multiuse shopping center, fronted with a Whole Foods and a Starbucks. Wilks gloats with his business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) both golf enthusiasts, black men playing the white mans game.
Enter Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), a gravel-voiced crazy motherfucker whos really a Shakespearean fool which means hes way smarter than he appears. Barlows been repainting the one house thats slated for demolition on the redevelopment site, impervious to police warnings that hes trespassing and committing vandalism, and that the building is red-tagged. He once owned the wreck, and if the law were being adhered to, hed still be the rightful owner because his taxes actually were paid (by somebody else), so the citys seizure of his home was illegal for that and other reasons. Barlow knows all this, though he talks around it in tortured, meandering anecdotes.
When the tawdry legal underpinnings of their investment come to light, the mayoral candidate and his business partner have to choose whether to roll over the old clown or whether to adhere to the rule of law. Commerce versus conscience. The paradox divides the partners, and shark teeth emerge.
In an evening of engaging performances under Kenny Leons direction, the dialogue flows and bubbles with a blend of righteousness, self-deprecating wit and a healthy dose of absurdity. Denise Burse cuts a matronly figure as Wilks wife, but Wilson doesnt give her much to do other than stand by her man in one of the plays soppier scenes. John Earl Jelks is grand as a local laborer and moral guardian, fearlessly underscoring the would-be mayors contradictions before they turn into hypocrisy. The play shares Arthur Millers obsession with a political and economic system that punishes those who do right, and benefits those who do wrong. As a reminder, Martin Luther Kings portrait hangs on a wall of set designer David Gallos decaying, once ornate building. If we dont all obey the law, were left with chaos, Wilks protests. Honestly now, is that any way to win an election?
RADIO GOLF | By AUGUST WILSON | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through September 28 | (213) 628-2772 or www.marktaperforum.org
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