Review: `Radio Golf’

Aldo Billingslea (left) is Harmond Wilks, C. Kelly Wright (center) is Harmond’s wife, Mame, and Anthony J. Haney is Harmond’s business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, in August Wilson’s Radio Golf at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Photos by Mark Kitacka.


Superb cast tunes up Wilson’s `Radio’ at TheatreWorks
««« ½


Even the prodigious talents of August Wilson have a hard time making the ’90s interesting.

Radio Golf, Wilson’s final play and the last piece of his extraordinary cycle of plays documenting African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, receives its Bay Area premiere in a tightly focused, incredibly well acted production from TheatreWorks in Mountain View.

Perhaps because we have the least distance from the ’90s, as opposed to other plays in Wilson’s cycle (such as “Fences” in the ’50s or “The Piano Lesson” in the ’30s), it’s difficult to feel the dramatic weight of a decade that is best remembered for e-mail, the Internet and little else.

Curiously, there’s not a computer to be seen on Erik Flatmo’s set – a “raggedy,” as one character calls it, office space in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that was once the height of elegance with its embossed tin ceiling. The year is 1997, and the space is being used as home base for the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, an ambitious attempt to obliterate the blight of the black district’s poverty and hard times and introduce apartment complexes, a Starbucks, a Barnes and Noble and, of course, a Whole Foods.

The project is spearheaded by old college chums Harmond Wilks (Aldo Billingslea, right), owner of a successful real estate agency, and Roosevelt Hicks (Anthony J. Haney), a banker. This redevelopment is just the beginning, especially for Harmond, who grew up in the Hill District and wants to take the energy of this project and turn it into a bid to become Pittsburgh’s first African-American mayor.

There’s a lot of business talk in Radio Golf – maybe that’s another reason the ’90s are hard to enliven because the decade was all business – but with all the exposition of Act 1 out of the way, we get to the heart of what Wilson seems to be after here.

As time rolls on, and as “progress” pushes forward, we tend to want to deny – or at least ignore – the past rather than deal with it. But without the past, how do we know what our success really is? And without a clear view of where or who we’ve been, how do we know we’re aiming for success for the right reasons?

These are the issues faced by Harmond, a straight-laced, follow-the-plan kind of guy. His gorgeous, successful wife, Mame (C. Kelly Wright), has helped formulate the plan to get him into the mayor’s office, and together they are going to head all the way to the Senate.

But just as the plan is kicking into gear, the past shows up in the form of two men. One, Old Joe (the superb Charles Branklyn), is slightly crazy and has questionable motives, but he is deeply rooted in the past of the Hill District and even more rooted in Harmond’s past than he knows.

The other is Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender), a self-educated, hard-working man who brings a big dose of reality with him wherever he goes. Wilson, in a rather lazy narrative approach, makes him read from the newspaper a few too many times, but Sterling has the kind of integrity that makes businessmen and politicians nervous.

Director Harry J. Elam Jr. has a hard time kicking the long first act into gear, but in Act 2, the play and the actors catch fire because Wilson is focusing less on plot and much more on character.

With his open, honest face, Billingslea is superb as Harmond. There are dark currents coursing through this ambitious man who adopts as his election slogan: “Hold Me to It.” Faced with compromise and injustice, Harmond has to find some sort of balance between his ambition and his integrity.

Billingslea has an incredible scene with Wright, who never makes a misstep as the supremely well put together Mame. The couple watches their goals and their dreams of a perfect life in politics crumble around them. And in this one scene, they have to determine their future as a couple and what their past measures up to in the present.

There’s another extraordinary scene in the second act, this one between Haney’s Roosevelt and Callender’s Sterling. The two men – from opposite ends of the African-American male spectrum – clash in a profound way, each calling the other names and attempting to define one another through blame and accusation. It’s a difficult, chilling scene, and through it, Wilson cuts right to the heart of why race in this country has been for more than a century, and will continue to be, such a complex, polarizing issue.


Radio Golf continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

6 questions for August Wilson scholar/director Harry J. Elam Jr.

C. Kelly Wright and Aldo Billingslea head a top-notch cast of Bay Area actors in the TheatreWorks production of August Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf. Photo by David Allen

August Wilson, according to Harry J. Elam Jr., is one of our greatest American playwrights. With two Pulitzers, the late Wilson was the most produced playwright of the 1990s and he looks to take that title again in the first decade of the 21st century.

Elam knows what he’s talking about: he’s the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities for Stanford’s Drama Department. He’s the author of The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson, but even more than that, has acted in Wilson plays (including the 1986 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and he has directed Wilson’s plays.

He’s currently readying the TheatreWorks production of Radio Golf, the last play Wilson completed before his death at age 60 in 2005. Radio Golf, set in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, is the final piece of an epic 10-play cycle documenting African-American life in the 20th century.

Previously for TheatreWorks, Elam directed Wilson’s Two Trains Running and Fences.

Juggling a schedule of classes and rehearsals, Elam managed to find a few minutes to answer some questions about Wilson’s legacy and the Bay Area premiere of Radio Golf, which begins previews Wednesday, Oct. 8, opens Saturday, Oct. 11 and closes Nov. 2.

What was your relationship like with Wilson himself?

I first met him when I was in the second production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. As with many other academics, he was incredibly helpful and very, very accessible to me. The relationship was great. I remember one time when I was finishing a book about him, I wet to see King Hedley at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and we sat and talked for 3 ½ hours. He gave up his time to me, but I know many colleagues who had relationships like that with him. The last time I saw him was when he performed his solo piece, How I Learned What I Learned, in Seattle. He gave me a big hug. That’s the kind of person he was in my experience.

You teach Wilson to your students. How do they respond to him?

What you want as a professor is texts that open themselves up to explore issues within larger issues and that merit re-reading, close reading and close critical examination. His work is all of that and it energizes students. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which was Wilson’s favorite of his plays, and is my favorite, is the one that people tend to respond to most. And then because of the family dynamics, they often respond to Fences and The Piano Lesson. Those are the more accessible ones.

How does working as a director inform your work as a scholar?

The writing informs the directing and the directing informs the scholarship. When I write a book, I’m looking at an audience of mostly other scholars – maybe it’s a little wider for a Wilson book – and I’m looking to interpret for that audience. When you direct, you’re interpreting for a non-academic audience, a wider audience that needs to get what the work is saying. What’s more, working with actors getting on their feet and moving around and making the play make sense or thinking about what this moment means in context – it all informs the critical thinking of what the play is doing. It’s a really enjoyable process.

Where do you think Radio Golf sits – not chronologically but critically – in the Wilson canon?

What Wilson said about Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean, the last two plays he completed, was that they were umbrellas under which the other plays can sit. He wrote this play pretty consciously to connect it and make it coherent within the cycle. One of the interesting things is Radio Golf’s relationship to Gem, which is set in 1904. The characters in the earlier play are literally the ancestors of the characters in Golf. There are other connections to other plays as well because Golf is a play looking back through the cycle as a whole, and there’s another process of looking back, looking back on his own process of writing.

Radio Golf was written in 2005 and tells the story of a black candidate for mayor and the way politics and race and class all factor into his campaign. It seems fairly prescient.

There are definite resonances to now. The character, Harmond Wilks, has to figure out what he values most – his relationship to the community, to culture, to the past and how all of that relates to economic advantage. Wilson deals more with issues of race and class here. He was very interested in examining middle- to upper-class blacks, which he hasn’t dealt with significantly in other plays. He was interested in commenting on the connection of middle- or upper-class blacks to the community as a whole or to the black masses. As for looking ahead, a character named Old Joe says something along the lines of, “America is a giant slot machine. Wonder if your quarter is working or if the machine is broke, what do you do?” That’s pretty amazing.

You have a pretty amazing cast of Bay Area actors – Aldo Billingslea, C. Kelly Wright, Anthony J. Haney, Charles Branklyn and L. Peter Callender – all of whom have experience with Wilson’s work.

Definitely. These are some of my favorite actors. The hard question for me right now, because I’m so much inside the play, is does it measure up? Our task is to make it measure up and make people see the value that is in it. I’ve heard criticism that the language isn’t as poetic as other plays, but it’s set in the ’90s. The language is closer to who we are now. I think the language is poetic, but in a different way. Another criticism is that it’s not as spiritual as the other plays – no ghosts, no Aunt Esther, no City of Bones. But the spiritual aspect is implicit. In directing, my own impression of the play changes. I see so much more in this play now than on first response.

Radio Golf begins performances Oct. 8 and continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.