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Radio Golf

Published 7 October 2008

Written as part of a series of plays exploring the African-American experience in the 20th century, August Wilson’s Radio Golf finishes the century with a portrait of Pittsburgh in 1997, a place and a time at odds with its past.

Life is good for Harmond Wilks. A successful businessman whose development company has won the tender for a major new housing development, he is also in the running to be the first black Mayor of the city. Helped by his go-getting wife and money-hungry best friend Roosevelt, Harmond feels himself to be an upwardly mobile member of Pittsburgh society who has opportunity at his feet, on an equal playing field with his white contemporaries.

One day in his campaign office he encounters Elder Joseph Barlow, otherwise known as Old Joe, a neighbourhood fixture who has scraped by in life with the help of petty crime. Old Joe has forgotten to pay his taxes and is unaware that his house was forfeited to the council, who sold it on to Harmond’s company. Soon to be demolished to make way for Harmond’s redevelopment, this old colonial house – which once belonged to Old Joe’s Aunt Esther and appears in a previous play in the cycle, Gem Of The Ocean – is a symbol of Pittsburgh’s heritage. In what becomes a morality play, Harmond at first cannot recognise the value of this heritage against what he thinks are the huge benefits to the area that his redevelopment will bring. Though he claims to want to restore the place he grew up in to its former glory, in fact he is destroying everything that made it what it is.

While Danny Sapani’s idealistic Harmond struggles with his moral dilemma, things are more clear cut for his wife and best friend. Julie Saunders plays his wife Mame Wilks as a fiercely modern, confident and power-hungry woman who is more realistic than her husband but determined to avoid the negative aspects of that reality which would have prevented previous generations from being successful. The motivator of best friend and business partner Roosevelt (Roger Griffiths) is money. Obsessed with cars and golf, Roger holds no sway with the past and grabs at every money-making opportunity in his path, even if he is blinkered to the fact that racial equality in 1997 Pittsburgh is still not as equal as he assumes.

There is strong support from Joseph Marcell as cynical, stubborn Old Joe and Ray Shell as hyperactive, childlike handyman Sterling Johnson, who turns out to be more intelligent than he makes out. Both firmly attached to the heritage of the town, they have an ingrained sense of right and wrong that the other characters, in their mission for self-advancement, have lost sight of.

Mixed in with these issues of race, class, right versus wrong and old versus new is a story of a man trying to escape the shadow of his father, and the ghost of his brother, killed in Vietnam. In striving so forcefully for a better future, Harmond has forgotten the importance of the past.  

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