Twenty-eight years ago, a young dramatist named August Wilson wrote a play called Jitney. It would become the first in Wilson's landmark ten-play cycle describing the African American experience in the United States, one play for each decade of the 20th century. Two of those plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Now Radio Golf, the last play in the cycle, written by Wilson just before he died of cancer in October 2005 at age 60, has made it to Broadway's Cort Theatre. It stars Harry Lennix of the hit TV show "24" and the Tony Award–winning Tonya Pinkins and is directed by Kenny Leon, whose credits include Wilson's Gem of the Ocean and the recent Tony-nominated revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
"Radio Golf captures exactly what is happening in the world right now," says Pinkins, who won her Tony for Jelly's Last Jam and was nominated for Caroline, or Change. "Opportunities are expanding for African Americans — a black person is even running for president this year. But we can't feel that just because we have great athletes, and politicians, and people making lots of money, we can forget that a huge percentage of our population hasn't come much farther than they were in the days of slavery. That's what the play is about. We have this money, but don't forget where you came from, and don't forget that there are people who haven't gotten where you are."
Kenny Leon puts it this way: "Radio Golf is the perfect play to end the cycle." It is set in Wilson's Pittsburgh, in the Hill District where he grew up, and involves 1839 Wylie Avenue, the home of Aunt Ester, the centuries-old character featured in several of his plays. The prime characters include Harmond Wilks, who is running to be the first black mayor of Pittsburgh and is favored to win. He is involved in developing land that includes Aunt Ester's house, which is scheduled to be demolished. (In the spring of 2005 Wilson said that his then seven-year-old daughter gave him the title when she asked what the play was about: part of the plot involves a radio station and a golf club.) "In the play, it is 1997," Leon says. "African Americans have had much success — but are we sustaining the community, are we connected to the community? At the expense of trying to move forward, are we forgetting important values that would sustain our culture? Radio Golf confronts this squarely."
It is, Leon says, "the first of the plays to deal totally with the middle class. The middle class characters have one sort of rhythm or song," as Wilson called it — a rhythm or song different from characters in the other plays, "because they are losing it. But by the end of Radio Golf, August has Harmond Wilks reclaim his song. You can't forget all those things that sustained us. The house Aunt Ester lived in is a metaphor for the culture. You can't tear it down — you have to find a way to embrace it."
Harry Lennix portrays Wilks. "He is an anomaly," Lennix says of Wilks. "He's very much a departure from every other character Wilson created. He is middle class and upwardly mobile, very much part of the American fabric. He believes in the political system and the socio-economic system."
Tonya Pinkins portrays Mame, Wilks's wife. "We are both from the Hill District, which is blighted and slated for redevelopment," she says. "He becomes nostalgic for the neighborhood, which I am happy to have gotten out of and want to stay out of."
Mame, she says, "is both strong and soft. She's very successful. She's not trying to be a man. She's not overly aggressive. She's very feminine. She knows how to get her way without going toe to toe with a man."
Lennix says that Wilson is making a bold statement. "He's saying that going into the 21st century, things will not be easy, but that we have to make a personal investment in terms of resolving all those issues that still haunt black America — what was done to us historically in terms of the slave trade, and all the other ills that have befallen black America from the outside. And that we also have to realize our values from the inside out."
In the end, Lennix says, he feels that Radio Golf "is very hopeful — it is an optimistic play. There are many reasons to be hopeful. But the work is far from over. And we have to keep our eyes on the prize."
Certainly, Wilson himself had his eyes on the prize — his goal of completing what no other playwright had ever done: telling the story of a people in ten plays over an entire century. "There's the divine nature of the fact that he set out to do this cycle," Pinkins says, "and then after the completion of the tenth and final play, he died. I feel as if he had this thing that he was put on the earth to do — and he accomplished it."