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
(the closing episode of Wilson’s 10-play cycle now at the Taper), if
they weren’t all African-American in a run-down Pittsburgh neighborhood circa
1997, you’d think they were villagers in a play by Sean O’Casey or John Millington
Synge — not just from the stories but from the way they’re 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 isn’t a perfect example of Wilson’s 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 that’s 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. Wilson’s characters wake up to the realization that after selling their principles, others still hold the country’s wealth, and that’s 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 man’s game.

Enter Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), a gravel-voiced “crazy motherfucker” who’s really a Shakespearean “fool” — which means he’s way smarter than he appears. Barlow’s been repainting the one house that’s slated for demolition on the redevelopment site, impervious to police warnings that he’s trespassing and committing vandalism, and that the building is red-tagged. He once owned the wreck, and if the law were being adhered to, he’d still be the rightful owner because his taxes actually were paid (by somebody else), so the city’s 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 Leon’s 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 doesn’t give her much to do other than stand by her man in one of the play’s soppier scenes. John Earl Jelks is grand as a local laborer and moral guardian, fearlessly underscoring the would-be mayor’s contradictions before they turn into hypocrisy. The play shares Arthur Miller’s obsession with a political and economic system that punishes those who do right, and benefits those who do wrong. As a reminder, Martin Luther King’s portrait hangs on a wall of set designer David Gallo’s decaying, once ornate building. If we don’t all obey the law, we’re left with chaos, Wilks protests. Honestly now, is that any way to win an election?

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