The set IS the first thing that deserves mention. Designed by David Gallo, it is an enormous and detailed cross section of a crumbling building in Pittsburgh's Hill District—the real neighborhood where August Wilson set his 10-play black American history cycle, and whose literary value now rivals William Faulkner's Lafayette County, Mississippi (fictionally known as "Yoknapatawpha County"). The center of the set is a renovated office, painted white, containing desks, filing cabinets, boxes, odd pieces of furniture, and windows that view an economically decimated street. Around the bright office, the rest of the building is decaying into exposed brick, smashed drywall, collapsed floors, and lifeless cobwebs. The office is a core of hope buried, bunker-like, beneath years of poverty, neglect, and abandonment—the bombed-out, post-Fordist city that whites fled after the race riots of the '60s. Middle- and upper-class blacks also fled this blighted city. The play begins with their return in the mid-'90s.
In his last play, which covers the final decade of the 20th century, August Wilson takes a hard look at what is new and what is the same for blacks in Pittsburgh and America in general. Enter Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll) and his wife Mame Wilks (Denise Burse). Harmond wants to run for mayor and rebuild the neighborhood that made his father, a real-estate investor, rich. He is the spirit of the era—a Clintonite, a Vernon Jordan, a Ron Brown, a man who believes in America but is not ignorant of its problems. In him, a profound contempt for the police (an ostensibly corrupt institution) stands alongside a pro-business ideology (doing good business is doing good for the community). His wife, sadly, doesn't have much on her mind. Wilson has written convincing female leads (in Fences, for example) but in this case, he has failed. Mame is simply pampered and whiny and lacks a whole lot of soul. Radio Golf could have functioned easily (if not better) without her.
To tell the truth, the play is about black men. "What does the black man want?" the black French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon famously asked in the '50s. Radio Golf searches for the answer to that question in black America's most prosperous period.
The men in the play form a polyphonic musical discourse of desire, each line/theme/man representing a class. Harmond is old money, Roosevelt Hicks (his business partner) is new money, Sterling Johnson is working class, and Elder Joseph ("Old Joe") Barlow is a member of what Marx called the lumpenproletariat, the "flotsam of society."
Not surprisingly, the greatest antagonism is between the working class ("you go around kissing the white man's ass then when they see me, they think I'm supposed to kiss it too") and the nouveau riche ("it's not my fault your daddy's in jail and your mama's on drugs"). The strongest bond grows between the man who has no money or prestige (Old Joe) and the man who has lots of it (Harmond). "My mama say everybody on the bed or everybody on the floor," says Old Joe, who is not only the poorest of the bunch, but also the most poetic. Harmond is the most diplomatic. Sterling is the most manly. Roosevelt is the most ambitious. All of the male performances are solid, as is the direction by Kenny Leon, who has nine of Wilson's ten plays under his belt.
Seattle finally makes an appearance in the contained world of Wilson's imagination. He lived and died here, but nothing in his art ever exposed that fact. Then, near the end of the play, like the sun breaking through the clouds, prosperous Seattle appears over the poor Hill District. The scene involves a house that dates back to the first installment of Wilson's cycle, Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904. Harmond's company plans to demolish this raggedy old house and replace it with a fancy condo. But when Harmond discovers that his company acquired the house illegally, he decides to build around it. He shows the new plan to businesses slated to occupy the retail space: Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble are pissed off about the changes. One insidious, "soft" corporation, however, loves the idea. "I got a call back from Starbucks in Seattle," Harmond says to his wife. "They love the idea. They think it will make great publicity about preserving the house, preserving part of the community. At the grand opening, they're going to give Mr. Barlow [the owner of the old house] free Starbucks coffee for life."
It took Wilson 10 plays to get to the heart of Hill District, but he nailed Seattle in just one email@example.com