Radio Golf, August Wilson’s last play, is also the last play chronologically in his famous Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten dramas chronicling African-American life in twentieth-century America. Although the plays were not written in the order of the chronology they depict, many characters, places, and ideas recur in the works. Radio Golf had its world premiere just six months before Wilson lost his battle with cancer. Playing in Seattle (where many of Wilson’s plays were nurtured), Boston, and Baltimore, among other regional venues, Radio Golf eventually made it to Broadway in 2007, where it was greeted with accolades and awards.
Radio Golf puts a unique twist on the elegy. Perhaps the most self-aware of all of the Pittsburgh dramas, the play eschews “riding-off-into-the-sunset” clichés even as it gracefully ends a landmark piece of storytelling. Set in 1997, the play is a direct confrontation of history and the present. The weight of the other nine plays is keenly felt in the story of Harmond Wilks, a man who finds both himself and the place that birthed him at a crossroads. On the verge of an almost-guaranteed win as a mayoral candidate, Wilks finds his identity shaken when his morals and ideals are questioned by those around him. Ultimately, he must recognize what the price of his success is and decide whether he is willing to pay it. Radio Golf is Wilson’s most direct interrogation of his audience regarding what it means to be African American. He ultimately asks whether it is possible for black culture and heritage to be preserved when it is integrated into mainstream white society. Far from wistful, the ending of Radio Golf asks its audience to renew its commitment to dealing with these complicated issues.
The play opens in the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Office in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. There are boxes everywhere, indicating that the office is in transition. Mame Wilks and her husband, Harmond, enter bearing even more boxes. Mame is less than impressed with the office and debates with her husband about whether this storefront is the ideal headquarters for his mayoral campaign. Harmond’s good friend Roosevelt Hicks then enters, bringing a diagram of the new development project that the two are financing for construction in the Hill district. Still pending approval from the city, the plan includes retail chains, grocery stores, apartments, and other structures. Mame disagrees with Harmond about the naming of the new medical center that will be built on the site. Harmond wants to name it after Sarah Degree, the area’s first black nurse. Mame reminds him that she needs a copy of an upcoming speech of Harmond’s to give to the newspaper.
After Mame leaves, Roosevelt expresses his concerns that the development deal will not go through and that he will lose all his money. Harmond assures him the deal is all set, and Roosevelt turns to talking about his discovery of his love of golf, which he now teaches on the side. Mame calls from the road to tell them that she passed by someone painting an old house scheduled for demolition to make way for the development project. Roosevelt leaves and Sterling Johnson enters. Sterling is an old classmate of Harmond’s who spent some time in jail for robbery. He declares himself reformed and says he is looking for construction work. Harmond agrees to let him redo the campaign office. They shake on it, and Sterling leaves as Roosevelt returns. Roosevelt spoke with the man who was painting the house, and the reason the man gave for doing it was that the house was his property.
Scene 2 finds Harmond looking over the revised rendering for the development project. An old man named Elder Joseph Barlow (who goes by “Old Joe”) enters and asks if Harmond is a lawyer. Harmond tries to send him down to Hill House to get a lawyer, but Old Joe insists he needs Harmond’s help because Harmond is a “big man.” Old Joe reveals that he knows of Harmond’s family, including Harmond’s late brother, Raymond. Old Joe continues to talk about his past as Harmond gently tries to get him to leave. Roosevelt enters, recognizes Old Joe, and informs Harmond that he was the man repainting the house. Old Joe shows Harmond a summons complaint—the reason Old Joe needed a lawyer. Harmond calls a friend in town and gets the complaint dismissed. When Harmond and Roosevelt interrogate Old Joe about why he was painting the house, he replies again that it is his house. Old Joe says his daughter wants to live there, so he was repainting it for her. Roosevelt rifles through some files and shows Old Joe the demolition order. Despite Old Joe’s protests that he still owns the house, Roosevelt abruptly dismisses the old man. Once alone with Harmond, Roosevelt excitedly informs him that Bernie Smith, a powerful local businessman, has asked him to lunch and a round of golf. Harmond warns him to be careful around Bernie, but Roosevelt shrugs it off and takes out his new business card. He has now been made vice president of Mellon Bank. Roosevelt’s reverie is broken when he looks out the window and sees someone trying to break into his car.
Scene 3 begins with Mame and Harmond debating the content of his upcoming speech. Mame is wary of a section in which Harmond is critical of the police commissioner. She warns Harmond that his remarks could alienate potential voters that he will need to win the election. Old Joe enters and tells Harmond that someone broke into the trunk of Harmond’s car. As Harmond dashes out, Old Joe chats with Mame. His talk turns elliptical and mystical as he recounts a tale of a man who claimed to be God and was able to boil water with no heat. Mame bluntly debunks Old Joe’s miracle as a scam, stating that it was probably just “a Negro from Mississippi with some dry ice.”
Harmond returns, angry that the thieves stole the golf clubs out of the trunk of his car. Mame tells him to simply file an insurance claim, but Harmond clearly values the clubs for more than just their cost. She also warns him again about his speech, but Harmond defiantly calls his assistant to run the speech in its entirety in the paper. Mame leaves angrily, and Old Joe bemoans the difficulties of dealing with women. Harmond tells a story of how he and Mame first met, revealing she has a softer side. Old Joe says that his house was seized for back taxes, but he was told by his mother that someone always paid the taxes for them. Harmond is dubious but agrees to look into it. Roosevelt enters full of energy as Old Joe departs. Roosevelt has just come from his golf luncheon with Bernie Smith, who wants to make Roosevelt a partner in a buyout of a local radio station. When Roosevelt reveals that they are getting a cheaper price because of Roosevelt’s minority status, Harmond warns that Bernie is just using him. Undaunted, Roosevelt retorts that he is getting his foot in the door and that is all that matters. The two men sing a song from their youth, “Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here!” Roosevelt asks Harmond to golf, but Harmond cannot because his clubs were just stolen.
At the beginning of scene 4, Harmond talks on the phone with his assistant and finds out that his own company bought Old Joe’s house five years ago, before it went to auction. As he hangs up, Mame enters and announces that the governor called to tell her that interviews for a high-level job in his administration will just be a formality; the job is hers. Harmond congratulates her, and they get to work testing out various slogans for Harmond’s campaign. As Mame is leaving, Sterling enters and suggests “Hold Me to It,” which Harmond has Mame add to her list...
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