by Hugh Hunter
The Drama Group is currently performing “Radio Golf” (2005) through Nov. 30 at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG). It is the final work in the late August Wilson’s play cycle that aspires to chronicle African-American life in each decade of the 20th century.
The action takes place in a front store realty office with a glass door that opens out onto the rough, noisy streets of the Hill District in Pittsburgh (sound designer, Kim Pelle). On the walls, pictures of Martin Luther King and Tiger Woods give a time capsule view of black advancement.
Harmond Wilks (Kim E. Brown) owns the business. With the help of Mame (Vinceta Easley), his upwardly mobile wife, he makes plans to run for mayor even as he works on a massive urban renewal project. His equally ambitious business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Marc C. Johnson), also owns a radio show where he talks about golf.
Can anything be more anemically middle-class? The two businessmen sometimes burst into schoolboy chants to celebrate their advancements in society. No jazz or blues for these guys (though we hear that music during scene changes).
Then an eccentric old man, Elder Joseph Barlow (Monroe Barrick), rains on the party. He threatens their urban project when he starts to paint and claim ownership of a house that the developers need to demolish.
A tough and threatening local handyman, Sterling Johnson (Kamili O. Feelings), backs Joseph up. These colorful gents march to a different drummer. Gone are the snappy business suits, and their language is poetically colloquial as they move about the office with wonderful ease and expression.
Only Harmond takes them seriously, and “Radio” is about the battle for his soul. The problem comes down to this: By 1997 black social advancement is possible, but how much hard-won African-American identity gets sacrificed in the process?
Entirely too much, Harmond finally decides. The play lets Roosevelt and Mame have their say, and their anger feels authentic. But ultimately, they become an especially hurtful expression of a mainstream society that cannot honor the courage and offbeat creativity of black folks like Sterling and Joseph.
Playwright Wilson brings his problem into sharp focus, but only at the expense of drama. “Radio” takes a very long time to get going. When it does, there are notes of comedy and melodrama. But mostly you get one declamation after another, and Harmond comes to feel more like a vehicle for editorial viewpoint than a real person.
I respected the production itself, and the actors put a lot into it. Located inside a church building, Drama Group shows have improved in recent years, in part because of new lighting and black curtains that seal in the auditorium to make the venue actually feel like a theater.
The Drama Group performance is in FUMCOG at 6001 Germantown Ave. Tickets are available at the door. More information at 215-438-7331 or www.thedramagroup.org.