Throughout its majestic 100-year arc, August Wilson’s epic, 10-play cycle about the 20th century African-American experience has weighed the power of the past to shape the present as his characters strived, initially for basic rights of freedom and dignity. As the struggle shifted to one of assimilation and upward mobility, its spiritual price grew increasingly apparent in the late playwright’s reflection on the erosion of tradition, identity and community. So it’s not unexpected that the cost to the black man’s soul is bitterly acknowledged in Wilson’s concluding chapter, “Radio Golf.”
But that melancholy note also brings a dramatic cost. Whether his characters were in the grip of hope or despair, joy or sorrow, Wilson was always a humanist first and a social chronicler second. His compassion for even the shiftiest of his characters was rarely in doubt. But aside from two classic Wilson archetypes — one a repository for history and a living demand for justice, the other a personified conscience — the figures knocking heads onstage in “Radio Golf” seem orphaned.
The point is clearly that these people have strayed from their true selves, compromising their values and losing their voice. But while echoing that loss in their language makes sense, it also means sacrificing much of the singing lyricism and quasi-mythic qualities that give Wilson’s best works their incomparable bluesy texture and piercing depth. Despair was laced through “King Hedley II,” the chronological predecessor to “Radio Golf,” set during the 1980s. Here, that despair moves toward anger, frustration and self-reproach, but those feelings never take full dramatic shape.
It would have been a tragedy for Wilson to die without closing his uncommonly ambitious cycle by completing at least the initial version of its 10th and final part, set in 1997. (“Radio Golf” premiered at Yale Rep in April 2005; Wilson died of liver cancer the following October.) However, the playwright didn’t live to follow through the refinement process that crucially allowed his plays to evolve as they traveled the regional circuit en route to Broadway, which is cause for regret. Despite the sensitive molding of director Kenny Leon, something is missing here.
Most significantly, something is missing from the passive central character, Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), his shifting moral compass seemingly ruled not by inner workings but by narrative necessity.
Scion of a real estate business, Harmond views his redevelopment project — turning a block in Pittsburgh’s economically blighted Hill District into a massive housing and commercial hub complete with Whole Foods, Starbucks and Barnes & Noble — as a stepping stone toward election as mayor. His ambitious wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), is behind him, as is his business partner and golf buddy, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams). In a separate move to get a stake in a radio station, Hicks reveals he has no qualms about acting as the pawn in a white businessman’s deal requiring part minority ownership.
The seemingly inconsequential act of a nutty old man repainting an abandoned house on the development site changes everything. His claim of ownership jeopardizes the project, drives a wedge between Harmond and Roosevelt, causes Mame to question her husband and prompts Harmond to reassess both his past and his future.
Wilson’s love of half-crazy, disenfranchised oracles has been evident throughout the Pittsburgh Cycle, and Elder Joseph Barlow, known as Old Joe, is a fine addition to that gallery. He’s played by Anthony Chisholm with the stiff joints of an old-timer unused to material comfort, the wry grimace of someone allergic to hypocrisy and a raspy-voiced directness that cuts through the character’s discursive anecdotes.
In a neat stitch that ties off the decade-by-decade thread snaking through Wilson’s epic, the shared ancestry of Harmond and Old Joe is traced back to characters in the cycle’s chronological opener, “Gem of the Ocean.” That play unfolded in the home of Aunt Ester, the powerfully spiritual figure referred to throughout the cycle and, in a sense, the mother of all Wilson’s characters. Of course it’s that same house — and black heritage itself — that’s now threatened with demolition.
It’s significant — and true to the note of tarnished hope on which Wilson’s cycle concludes — that in place of the condemned house, alive with magic and history, we watch these characters in a drab, starkly lit office, surrounded by the decayed shell of Hill District life. With Martin Luther King Jr. and Tiger Woods sharing space on the back wall, David Gallo’s set suitably evokes the uneasy cohabitation of past and present.
Also resurfacing from an earlier play is Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), the firebrand ex-con first seen in the 1969-set “Two Trains Running” who now returns as a one-man union to adjudicate the debate between right and wrong as a war of cowboys and Indians.
While both Old Joe and Sterling tend to talk in speechy instant aphorisms, they have the unmistakable vigor of vintage Wilson figures — the kind once simply described by the playwright as having “loud voices and big hearts.” Commerce and industry are largely inaccessible to them, yet in their own uncompromising way, they continue pursuing the elusive American dream.
Unsurprisingly, Chisholm and Jelks give the production’s most involving performances, unleashing some of Wilson’s characteristically vibrant arias. One of the most bracing is Sterling’s dressing down of Roosevelt, in which he passionately outlines the difference between two contentious “N” words applied to black Americans and where the two men fall in those categories.
In Wilson’s view, Roosevelt is an inevitable product of progress, divorced from the concerns of less advantaged blacks and focused solely on his own advancement. Williams, who originated the role of Roosevelt at Yale Rep, deftly keeps his character amusing in the gabby first act, grounding his long friendship with Harmond before fully exposing his self-serving nature in the second. The play’s moral adversaries, Sterling and Roosevelt are its most roundly realized characters.
Best known for musical roles, including the lead in “Caroline, or Change,” Pinkins conveys the self-assurance of a driven woman whose navigational rudder points firmly away from the Hill District. She brings more warmth than Mame has on the page but is still stuck with a thankless character.
Lennix has a quiet charisma that sits well with Harmond, an innately ethical man who rediscovers his idealism and no doubt will inspire generalized comparisons to Barack Obama. Harmond has a moving moment when he’s transported while describing the effect of entering Aunt Ester’s house — feeling the woodwork, smelling the air.
But the character’s convictions are never as vivid as that description; he lacks the definition to provide the drama with a galvanic center. From a playwright so versed in poetic realism, Harmond’s redemptive course of action feels mechanical. Still, even if it’s less emotionally fulfilling than earlier installments, “Radio Golf” brings the titanic undertaking of a great playwright to a somber, reflective conclusion, underlining that the African-American struggle is ongoing.