The late August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” famously featured 10 plays that tackled 10 different decades of African American life in 20th century Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The collective works include “Gem of the Ocean” (1900s), “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (1910s), “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (1920s), “The Piano Lesson” (1930s), “Seven Guitars” (1940s), “Fences” (1950s), “Two Trains Running” (1960s), “Jitney” (1970s) and “King Hedley II” (1980s).
His final play “Radio Golf” (1990s) premiered the same year that Wilson died in 2005, but its timely social commentary lives on in a new production at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, from June 7 to July 2.
“It’s been really fun to go back in time to 1997 … and follow these characters as they go for big dreams of being mayor and more,” director Reginald Douglas told WTOP. “It’s a really exciting play that lets us look back but also reflect on this moment we’re in right now politically and socially, and it does it with the signature Wilson humor, signature love of lush, poetic language and rhythms … and really nuanced, rich characters that actors can eat up.”
Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1997, the story follows Harmond Wilks (JaBen Early), who inherits a realty company from his upper-middle class family. Not only is he running for mayor, he also joins his wife Mame Wilks (Renee Elizabeth Wilson) and best friend Roosevelt Hicks (Ro Boddie) to create the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project to redevelop the neighborhood by bringing in chains like Whole Foods, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble.
“They want to get rid of the Hill District and start fresh,” Douglas said. “The question that comes next is: what about the people who are still there? The play follows that give and take, push and pull between redevelopment, gentrification and change, but also history, legacy and the people who call this community their home, even if it may look blighted to others. At the core is a moral and ethical question that is very timely for us here in D.C.”
Right now you might be thinking, “Wait, if this is a story about real estate development, why is the title ‘Radio Golf?'” Turns out, Wilson weaves a subplot fitting for the era of both Rush Limbaugh and Tiger Woods.
“Harmond and Roosevelt love golf, Tiger Woods, they have his poster on the wall, he is the king for these guys, and Roosevelt does want to acquire a radio station,” Douglas said. “Back in the ’90s, radio was everything, the ultimate way to communicate with your audience, so I think Wilson is giving a nod to the power of media, the power of communication and who gets to tell what stories. Why can’t these two Black men tell the story of golf?”
Visually, the story largely takes place in one location inside the Bedford Hills Redevelopment office, just as “Fences” (1983) largely took place in Troy Maxson’s backyard with an unfinished fence and a baseball hanging from a tree.
“It’s a storefront, a small kind of mom-and-pop shop that they rent or buy to make their office but also want to be campaign headquarters potentially,” Douglas said. “This family says we’re gonna take what used to be a cleaners’ or hardware store and make this the home of our redevelopment office. It’s a beautifully designed office by [set designer] Meghan Raham. You get the Pittsburgh brick, the tile floor, the desk, the moving boxes. It’s an office that is in progress.”
The show runs for two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
“This play is hilarious; it’s really a comedy until it’s not,” said Douglas. “It’s full of laughter, it’s full of joy. They are a community, there’s a lot of history for these characters and the language shows that. It’s rich, it’s poetic, but it’s also conversational. That’s the magical thing Wilson does better than anybody. He’s able to give us poetic prose said naturally. … Wilson is also known for the sacred or spiritual entering the world and in this play it does show up.”
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