A decade of ambition… Pittsburgh playwright completes the cycle

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CAST WITH DIRECTOR OF RADIO GOLF—Clockwise from left: Art Terry, Eileen J. Morris, Wali Jamal, Mark Southers, Chrystal Bates and Kevin Brown.

These performances will establish PPTCO as the first company in the world to produce all 10 plays in 10 consecutive years and in the order of each play’s Broadway debut. It’s only fitting that such a monumental achievement in American theater take place in Pittsburgh under the vision of Southers, August’s fellow Hill District-native and protege. With “Radio Golf,” Southers becomes the first person to have designed sets and produce all 10 of Wilson’s plays.

Even if you’ve seen a production of “Radio Golf” before, this presentation adds another dimension to the story. The combination of a Pittsburgh audience seeing a play about itself in an intimate theater (any closer to the stage you’d be in the play) offers another layer of insight for patrons that are lost in larger venues.

The plot is palpably current and it would be easy to assume characters are based on contemporary Hill residents; it is to an extent, however, “Radio Golf” is August Wilson’s final play, finished a few weeks before his death.

It’s 1997 and Harmon Wilks has a plan in front of him that includes resurrecting the Hill District and announcing his bid to be Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. Mame, the go-getter wife, encourages his aspirations (with a few tweaks) and Roosevelt Hicks, Harmond’s ambitious business partner in the Bedford Hills development, is savoring his upward mobility as the newest vice president at Mellon. Nothing but blue skies ahead until they hit an obstacle… 1837 Wiley Avenue (an address that figure in almost every Pittsburgh Cycle play except “Ma Rainey.” Elder Joe Barlow and independent contractor Sterling Johnson represent some of the last remnants of the Hill’s past and they’re not going down without a fight.

Themes of redevelopment, gentrification, escaping the past and reconciling are prominent in “Radio Golf” as well as the “striving” theme present throughout the Cycle along with the use of metaphors. And this production is personal. Most of the cast grew up in the Hill District, several of them had met Wilson. They are Wilsonian veterans so for them this run is an emotional commitment and it shines through in their performances, Southers said.

After a long tour behind the scenes, Southers returns to the stage as Harmond Wilkes, offering a liberate portrayal of Wilkes as his past, present and futures collide with one another. Chrystal Bates (Aunt Ester from “Gem of the Ocean”) plays the sultry buppy wife who only sees one direction and it ain’t back, her scenes are hilarious with righteous indignation. Art Terry’s rendering of Roosevelt is spot on as a brutal incarnation of Sherman Helmsley’s George Jefferson with a determination to move on up by any means necessary. Handyman Sterling Johnson keeps everything 100-percent real as Wali Jamal bursts into every scene as a man on fire with a higher purpose. Kevin Brown as Elder Joe Barlow is attached to the past and is willing to share it with anyone who will or won’t listen. Brown has shown an astonishing skill in playing older character and this turn in Radio Golf is no less amazing.

“Radio Golf” continues through June 30 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 937 Liberty Avenue in the Cultural District across from the August Wilson Center. Tickets are $25 online, $30 at the door. All Wednesday, Thursday and preview tickets are $20 online, $25 at the door. Students, seniors and theater artists pay $20 online, $25 at the door. For group rates call 412-377-7803.

 

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