Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mr. Wilson's Fin de Cycle

Radio Golf By August Wilson, Directed by Kenny Leon, Seattle Repetory Theatre, Januray 19-February 18

So the Lovely Bride and I spent Saturday celebrating our illuminati anniversary (the 23rd - hey, the waiter got the joke). We took in a play, visited the nearby SF Museum, and had a wonderful meal at Canlis. And the play was the last (in order, not in creation) of August Wilson's cycle based on Pittsburgh's Hill District.

I have seen a lot of the late August Wilson's plays - five of the ten in this cycle and read a sixth, and can safely say I've seen more of his work live than any other modern playwright (Shakespeare still beats him out overall). He plays in heavy rotation in my native Pittsburgh. When I lived Milwaukee, his stuff was at the public theater there. And I have seen a lot of his work here in Seattle. So for the longest time I thought that Wilson was the "go-to" guy for the African-American theater experience. You know "Hey, we need something this year about the African-American experience - see what Augie's working on."

The truth of the matter has been that I have been inadvertently stalking the man for years. He and I were both born in Pittsburgh. He moved to Minneapolis before I showed up in Wisconsin, and lit out to Seattle before WotC was up and running. I saw him in the flesh, once, when I was taking a playwriting course and we were getting a tour of the rep. I have seen so many of his plays in part because he was a local writer for wherever I have been, and because wherever he was, he wrote well.

In general, Wilson's work is about ideas, ideals, and passion, and how great dreams get undercut by horrible reality. If everything it looking good for a character in act one, you know that by the middle of act two everything has collapsed in on him. His is a world of strugglers and achievers who are always trying to deal with a racial world.

Now, Mr. Wilson tends to be a bit longwinded, and his plays tend to be overstuffed with ideas and personal monologues. These are not neat clockwork creations, but brawling, sprawling works. Sometimes it is just too much, like his lumbering King Hedly II. He also has a tendency for "sudden rage" - a character suddenly goes off and someone ends up dead and you in the audience ask yourself "Where did THAT come from? What clue did I miss?" The weird thing is that while this last bit freaks you out, in the overall cycle, you are left with that feeling of forboding that it can break out at any time. The rage is always there.

So, Radio Golf. The place is the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Office on the Hill in 1997, literally presented in the staging as bright spot in the surrounding urban decay. Real estate developer Harmond Wilks (Rocky Carroll) and his sidekick Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) have a plan to redevelop a block on the Hill. Harmond Wilks is planning for a run as mayor, and his star is rising. He grew up on the Hill, but hasn't been back for years. The redevelopment plans hit a bump when there is a question about who owns one of the houses they are about to demolish.

For a good chunk of first act, Wilks has almost a Bob-Newhart sort of role, as he gets moved aside for more colorful characters, like Hicks, handyman Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks) and Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), the old codger who claims ownership of the soon-to-be-demolished house. However, Hicks soon finds himself caught between doing right and doing business, and how, when he makes that choice (remember what I said about the middle of the second act?) he is punished.

The thing is, the "Sudden Rage" here is not that sudden and much more grounded. By pitching Hicks as a long-suffering sounding board, we can see his transition from outsider to native, from planner to doer. The very long-winded nature of Wilson's characters (they have a story to tell, so you might as well just hunker down and let them tell it), gives the audience the chance of following along with Wilks' transformation. When he does erupt, it makes perfect sense, and you feel for his frustration and anger. The world should be better than it is. But it is not. He makes a choice, and in doing the right thing suddenly finds himself cast aside, moved from the center to the edge, as the rest of the deals continue to spin without him.

Race is the centerpost of August Wilson's plays, and the dealings of oppression as a damningly reliable mechanism always waiting for you to slip up. But there is more here in Radio Golf - it is a transformations and transitions and heritage and family expectations. Hicks was the good son who followed his stern father's plan, and when he gets his moment, you see his evolution not just in racial terms, but also in terms of family and self-identity.

It's a good play, a good end to the cycle, and a good addition to a rocky REP season. And it is doing the job of attracting more newcomers to the theater, if the number of folk who forgot to turn off their cell phones is any indication.

More later,