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110 in the Shade

Radio Golf

August Wilson's 10-play cycle goes out with a bang, thanks in part to star Harry Lennix.

By New York City
Tonya Pinkins and Harry Lennix in Radio Golf
(© Carol Rosegg)
Tonya Pinkins and Harry Lennix in Radio Golf
(© Carol Rosegg)
A huge question lingers over Radio Golf: How did the late August Wilson -- who lived long enough to apply the finishing touches to his 10-play cycle about the progress and plight of 20th-century African-Americans -- conclude an ultra-ambitious enterprise unparalleled in domestic theatrical annals?

For a while, it seems as if the play, which takes place in 1997, will be a respectable easing off from the more highly explosive earlier entries. But when Wilson unleashes his second act, the simmering nature of the beginning of this final work takes on the dimensions of a clever tease. Before dropping the final curtain, Wilson not only introduces a triumphant end-of-century development; he also provides something he'd been reluctant to claim possible in the previous nine plays. He propels a hero to the forefront, a figure previously made difficult to imagine in Wilson's view.

That sunburst of hope is Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), an upwardly mobile real estate developer with plans for a new multi-purpose building intended to revitalize Wilson's beloved Pittsburgh Hill District. Construction of the edifice will also help position Harmond to become the city's first black mayor. Slowly and insidiously, however, these best-laid plans begin unraveling in the combination Bedford Hill development-cum-campaign headquarters that the brilliant set designer David Gallo scoops out as the sole inhabitable space in a three-building row that features a burnt-out diner on one side and an abandoned barber shop on the other. (Donald Holder lights the setting like a 17th-century painting.)

In order to erect their 10-story edifice, Harmond and his business partner and old friend Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) have had to purchase for demolition an historic Federalist brick house at 1839 Wylie Avenue (an address that Wilson devotees will recognize as the former residence of the quite symbolic and extremely long-lived Aunt Ester). While they believe they've legally bought the decaying mansion at public auction, they haven't -- news which comes to them by the arrival of the house's true owner, Elder Joseph "Old Joe" Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), who also has his own personal connection to Harmond.

After learning the facts, the uncompromising Harmond -- still mourning the death of twin brother Raymond in the Vietnam War -- realizes he can't proceed in good conscience with the plans and suddenly has decisions to make. The potential repercussions of those decisions disturb his wife, the politically practical Mame (Tonya Pinkins), a political speechwriter who's in line for an important state post, as well as Roosevelt, who's climbing the economic ladder via a radio station he's just acquired with a powerful white backer.

Lennix, as strapping as a quarterback and brimming with concomitant stamina, brings inflexible understanding and them some to his role. In a season of remarkable performances by men, he's the latest to join what's shaping up as a hotly contested Tony race.

But he's not the only one persuasively delivering Wilson's always substantial and often musical speeches, some promoting the salvage of 1839 Wylie Avenue and some heatedly denouncing it -- often while invoking the much-discussed n-word.

Under Kenny Leon's now quiet, now fiery direction, Williams as the slowly hardening Roosevelt, John Earl Jelks as the street-smart construction worker Sterling (a character who appears in a previous Wilson play), and particularly Chisholm as Old Joe are immeasurably vital. Pinkins, costumed in Susan Hilferty's career-woman wraparound dresses, is fine, but hers is the only underwritten part.

By the end of the frequently very funny Radio Golf, Harmond Wilks is exalted as a contemporary hero -- not in the context of being the least ethically-challenged figure in a severely ethically-challenged era, but because he fits the lineaments of a classic hero. He's someone who instinctively knows the difference between right and wrong and acts accordingly. With his singular 10-play creation, August Wilson has gone out not with a whimper, but a bang.


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