PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Radio Golf — A Full Ten

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Radio Golf — A Full Ten It's quite becalming and very morale-boosting to bow on Broadway in an opus that, only the day before, The New York Drama Critics Circle declared the best American play of the season, but that was the happy fate that befell Radio Golf May 8 at the Cort Theatre.
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Talk about your hole in one! It was the sort of miracle one might suspect was manipulated from On High. Indeed, it could have been, this being the play that finally brought August Wilson across the finish line (albeit, posthumously) in his extraordinary life-mission to portray the black experience in 20th century American life, decade by decade, in a ten-play cycle.

A bittersweet blend of victory and sorrow was unmistakable among the opening-night celebrants who converged after the play at Bond 45. The last time most of them were there was for another journey's end (the play by that name, also cited by those critics).

Actors who animated Wilson's works importantly in the past were prominent among the first-nighters who came out to see and celebrate the Broadway arrival of his last new play.

"You wonder if there was a plan there," pondered Leslie Uggams, a Tony nominee for his King Hedley II in 2001. "I mean, he said that he was going to do ten, and he got to do ten, then he got taken from us — but he set out to do exactly what he wanted to do. I was just so happy with this play — and so saddened that it will be August's last. But those plays will be done over and over and over. You'll keep hearing that voice for years to come."

Uggams recalled his presence was formidable and constant as King Hedley II was coming together. "He was there every minute of the day at rehearsals, and I got to spend a lot of time with him. Not only did I get to spend time with him, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for him and the cast when we were in Chicago. We had the best time, and afterward he said, 'Y'know, that's one of the best Thanksgivings I've had.' I loved and adored him." Another of Wilson's Tony contenders, Phylicia Rashad, arrived from the theatre in a rhapsodic state. "I'm elated by every aspect of this play," she said. "The writing, the acting, the direction, the whole of it — a wonderful accomplishment all the way around."

The one time the character materialized on stage (in 2004's Gem of the Ocean), Rashad played Aunt Ester, the mythically old (300 years plus) matriarch who hovers over the whole cycle and is alluded to as late as Radio Golf, Wilson's '90s opus. "August always said she's the most important person in the cycle — 'the mother of all the plays,' he said."

Now that all ten works are present and accounted for — nine of them are set in The Hill District of Pittsburgh — it's time to break out the genealogy charts and see how the various characters in this cavalcade fit together. "It makes you feel like that, doesn't it?" Rashad agreed. "You find that you want to know the whole genealogy of August's characters."

"I expect those accolades for August," insisted Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who got his Tony for Wilson's Seven Guitars. "To me, they're deserved. It's unexpected to me when an August Wilson play is not the best play of the year — when [that] happens, I'm shocked!"

The New York Drama Critics Circle, for the record, only shocked him twice in the 22 years it took to put the cycle on Broadway: King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean.

Otherwise, those august August-lovers of NYDCC cited him for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1985, Fences in 1987, Joe Turner's Come and Gone in 1988, The Piano Lesson in 1990, Two Trains Running in 1992, Seven Guitars in 1996, Jitney (which had an Off-Broadway run) in 2000 and, now, Radio Golf.

"We come to this point in August's work where a lot of people think it's the end," said Santiago-Hudson. "Actually, it's the beginning. Now, we start putting the whole cycle in perspective and see how they line up end to end, as opposed to the way they were presented — fragmented in little sections at different times. I have an appetite for Jitney. I've an appetite for Fences. I've an appetite for Gem. I'm just overwhelmed with delight."

There is a soft-center of moral ambiguity at the core of Radio Golf which sticks to the soul of Wilson's wanna-do-the-right-thing protagonist, Harmond Wilks, who is gearing up to become Pittsburgh's first black mayor while he launches a huge redevelopment project. The glitch is that he acquired a house on the property unlawfully from the city because the homeowner, a noble lowlife named Elder Joseph Barlow, had not been properly notified that the city had taken it over because of back taxes. A man with almost visible decency, Wilks labors mightily to rise to the occasion — only to be hammered down in place by his practical-minded business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, who argues that Wilks' "sin" is a mere technicality. The two launch into a head-butting battle of starting and stopping the bulldozers, and all mayoral hopes pretty much evaporate in the dust-up.

Well-cast as Wilks, Harry Lennix from TV's "24" has the Obama bearing and good looks of a winner on the rise, and he took to the stage like a duck to water: "I had a great time tonight. There's never going to be another first time I open a show on Broadway. I'll never have another debut on Broadway so this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

It helped that he had a lot to play. "As a character, I'm besieged on every front," he said. "The very heart of drama is conflict, and I think that the biggest conflict in drama that I can find is when a character is at war with himself. I think of that as the most pointed conflict that's going on in the play — how does a man justify what he knows in his heart to be wrong? I think that he rises to the occasion because things are brought into sharp focus by two characters that he meets from the neighborhood that he supposedly represents."

One character, of course, is the homeless-bound Barlow, crustily conveyed by a veteran actor thoroughly versed in the folksy ways of Wilson ("44 productions of six of his plays, four of them from start all the way to New York," beamed Anthony Chisolm with pride).

The other character is the play's part-time comic relief/part-time conscience, Sterling Johnson, a construction worker who rebelliously insists on painting the Barlow shanty before it is demolished. John Earl Jelks, a straight-talking scene-stealer in this role, has — like Chisholm — been with Radio Golf from the beginning, for two years and seven cities, "ever since Yale Rep when August was just writing it. I really believe this is one of August's alter-ego characters. I think he wrote it for himself. I'm just having the opportunity to play it. What I like about Sterling is his truth, his honesty, the fact that he's Everyman's man. He tells it like it is. He doesn't sugarcoat it. It's, like, 'This is it.'"

Positioned in the devil's advocate role of the reality-rooted Roosevelt Hicks, James A. Williams is the ramrod that gives the play its flint and friction — while making perfectly reasonable character sense at the same time. "As an actor, you always have to believe in your character's argument," Williams maintained. "What I ended up doing was creating a person who was his first generation to go to college. His grandmother had scrubbed floors to make sure that he would get an education. Because of that upbringing, he was kinda like Scarlett O'Hara — 'I'll never be hungry again' — and, because of that, when you go for something that hard, you have a tendency to be myopic in your point of view. You can't see to the left or the right — you just see your goal — and that's what happens in that kind of situation. No one starts out being greedy or misguided, but people just have a singularity of focus that allows them to block out the better portion of their character."

The depth he brings to this character, Williams said, is just the result of reading Wilson's road map. "When you have a great playwright, he gives you everything you need," he contended. "There are actors who cut their teeth on Shakespeare. I cut my teeth on August Wilson. I had the privilege of doing his first professional production in St. Paul, Minnesota. Then I was in the first big production of Jitney in 1986. This means so much to me, to be able to be a part of the completion of the cycle. It's a dream come true."

Tonya Pinkins, in the lone female slot (Wilks' politically savvy wife), is not without her Wilson chops, either. "My very first play that I ever got was an August Wilson," she recalled. "It was the original Piano Lesson at Yale Rep and at the Goodman and at the Old Globe. Then, I got to do Joe Turner's Come and Gone in Pittsburgh, directed by August. I never got to do one of his plays on Broadway, until now. In fact, this is my first Broadway play, but it's my seventh Broadway experience. The other six were musicals."

Did Pinkins, a Tony winner for Jelly's Last Jam, mind being songless? "At first, I thought I would — especially coming off Caroline, Or Change. It was hard to pick a project because Caroline was so huge, but this felt like the perfect thing. I had nothing to compare it with. It was a completely different world with completely different requirements."

Acting August Wilson, she proffered, is almost like singing, in a sense. His big speeches ebb and flow like arias. "The rhythms of the writing just work," she contended. "It's almost like you don't have to act at all. You just speak his words, and they do the work."

Radio Golf was one of the last plays that Gordon Davidson booked into the Mark Taper during his long reign as an L.A. theatre titan — and he continued with the play as one of its lead producers, touring it to Broadway.

"There were seven different city stops in all — " he said, "Yale, Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, the Huntington in Boston, the Goodman in Chicago and the McCarter at Princeton. I booked Seattle because August was living there, and I thought maybe he might get to see it. We'd sneak him in the back or something, but he was not feeling well enough to do it. Two weeks after we closed there, he died." Davidson did not know about Wilson's illness until it was time to prepare the play for L.A. "Just as we were going into rehearsal, August called up from Seattle, and he said, 'Gordon, I won't be coming down for rehearsals. I have inoperable liver cancer, and I'm not going to take chemo because I want to work on the show.' Having seen it at Yale, he knew he didn't really have a second act. That's what he wanted to do, and he did it. He sent pages of scripts down all during our rehearsals. And he did bring in the rest of the act.

"What our goal was was to deepen the characterizations, give the actors time with the roles, working toward another level of playing that you don't get to do often. And that's what we've been doing. This whole thing has been a remarkable, amazing experience."

Wilson picked Kenny Leon to direct his last play because they had collaborated well bringing Gem of the Ocean to Broadway. "We got into a chemistry and an energy of working with each other on Gem," remembered the director. "We even cut off an hour of that show between Boston and New York. He said he was in his 'minimalist phase' so, with Radio Golf, he wanted to continue that. He also wanted his cycle to have a hopeful ending, and I think we accomplished that. I think there's a triumph feel at the play's end."

The odd title of the play was a contribution of Wilson's young daughter, Azula, said Leon. "This is his first play dealing with the middle class, and this middle class has the opportunity to buy radio stations and to play on any golf course in America. But there are things more valuable than buying radio stations and playing golf, such as preserving your past and honoring your culture which was symbolized by the house Aunt Ester lived in."

Christopher Rawson covered the play's opening for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is mentioned in the play. "I'm not a real evaluator of August's work," said Rawson, taking the fifth. "I'm sort of an explicator. I love the way Radio Golf is different from the other plays — dealing with the middle class and the fact that it doesn't have the primal forces the others do. Everything here is refined, but the struggle is just under the surface.

"Also it's all about what's happening in Pittsburgh right now. There are actual arguments going on about the development of the Hill District. The play is prophetic. He wrote it two and a half years ago, and it's set in '97, but we're having these battles this year."

Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero, and daughter Azula were present for the opening, as were B. Smith, B. D. Wong (bound for Williamstown in Herringbone this summer), Joanna Gleason and Chris Sarandon, lyricist Steven Sater, lighting designer Natasha Katz (who will illuminate The Little Mermaid), Keith David (who'll play Oberon in the park this summer to Jay O. Sanders' Bottom) and "Law and Order: SVU" actress Tamara Tunie, enjoying her second outing as a theatre producer (her first got the New York Drama Critics' nod for Best Musical: Spring Awakening — that's two-for-two, girl!).

In spring of 2000, when August Wilson collected his eighth and last plaque from the New York Drama Critics, he said, "Sixteen years ago, when I first stood here, I made a simple pledge. I have renewed it each time that I have stood here, and I want to renew it again. It goes just simply to continue to write for the theatre and to continue to do the best possible work that I can do."

Amen to that, August.

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The cast of <i>Radio Golf</i> takes its opening night bows.
The cast of Radio Golf takes its opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben