Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2422
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 before departing. Sterling asks again about the job Harmond promised him. Harmond tells Sterling the union has no record of him. Sterling responds that he is his own union and that he learned growing up that he would always have to find his own way in life because he was an orphan.
Old Joe enters, and he and Sterling talk about a fried chicken restaurant that has long been closed. Old Joe notices the flag pin that Harmond is wearing and tells a story about a friend of his who died in World War II. When Old Joe went to visit the dead man’s mother to deliver the flag to her, a white man ripped a flag pin off of Joe’s jacket, saying he did not deserve to wear it. Harmond recalls that the military gave his mother a flag at his brother Raymond’s funeral. As the scene closes, Old Joe reveals that Harmond’s father was the one paying the taxes on the house.
At the opening of the fifth scene, Roosevelt greets Harmond in his office. They are waiting for a declaration of blight to ensure that they get the federal money they need for the development project. Harmond tells Roosevelt that Old Joe’s house was purchased illegally because the auction was never advertised. Harmond wants to pay the $10,000 fee to Old Joe to set the matter right. Roosevelt dismisses the idea as a technicality and cannot understand why Harmond is so obsessed with the house. Harmond reveals that his father paid the taxes for the house, making the whole situation even more mysterious. Roosevelt is not interested. In fact, he is reevaluating his life now that he has become more successful and powerful. He wonders whether his wife is good enough for him now that he is a big shot, and he admits to getting in trouble at the bank for neglecting his responsibilities (in favor of the development and Bernie’s deal with the radio station). He tells Harmond that Bernie Smith would be interested in the development if the federal money falls through. The phone rings, and Harmond is told that the blight declaration was successful. He hangs up and again sings “Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here!” with Roosevelt. Suddenly, Sterling enters, demanding money for painting the door of Old Joe’s house. When Harmond and Roosevelt insist the house will be torn down, Sterling declares war on anyone who tries to harm the place.
The second act opens on Harmond listening to the radio. Roosevelt’s voice comes over the airwaves as he wraps up his weekly program, “Radio Golf.” Sterling enters and reads a flyer in support of Old Joe’s house (which he refers to as “Aunt Ester’s house” after the woman who used to live there). Sterling then presents Harmond with the golf clubs that were stolen from his car. He makes Harmond pay him $20 before he will give them back. Sterling debates Harmond about whether he can be a mayor to both the black and white people of the city. Old Joe enters, and Harmond tries to pay him the $10,000 for which the city sold his house. Despite Harmond’s urges, Old Joe refuses, insists he would rather continue paying off his back taxes, and leaves. Sterling points out to the exasperated Harmond that he just bought stolen goods (i.e., the golf clubs). He accuses Harmond of using his power and position to swindle Old Joe (whom no one would believe because of his age and eccentric nature). When Harmond insists that the house and the stolen golf clubs are not the same thing, Sterling points out that he does not need a formal education to know the difference between right and wrong.
At the beginning of scene 2, Roosevelt is practicing his golf swing with paraphernalia from the radio station scattered throughout the room. Harmond enters and talks about all of the unique structural elements inside Aunt Ester’s house, which he has just visited. Harmond then reveals a revised version of the development plan in which Aunt Ester’s house remains intact and the complex is built around it. Roosevelt is incensed and demands that Harmond abandon his plans. Harmond insists that they cannot destroy the house because it is not right. Roosevelt storms out, and Harmond calls to cancel the demolition. Old Joe enters and Harmond shows him the new plan, telling him the house will not be torn down. Old Joe is skeptical, wanting to see the deed as proof. As they talk about their family trees, they discover that Harmond’s great grandfather was Old Joe’s grandfather. The two men embrace.
The third scene finds a worried Roosevelt and Mame baffled by Harmond’s change of character. Mame tells him that Harmond has become obsessed with his family and his newfound relative, Old Joe. Mame says Harmond wants to move back to the Hill, an idea that is completely abhorrent to her. An ebullient Harmond enters, stating that Starbucks loves the idea of preserving Aunt Ester’s house. Roosevelt and Mame try to talk Harmond into postponing the start of construction until things smooth over, but Harmond will not hear of it. Roosevelt informs him that many of the other investors are enraged about Harmond’s changes and are planning to pull out of the deal. Harmond insists that he can win them over, but Roosevelt tells him he has reordered the demolition. Harmond tells him he cannot do that and insists he will file an injunction to prevent it. Mame warns him not to throw his life away, but Harmond maintains he has to do what is right.
The last scene of the play finds Harmond waiting to find out if the judge has ruled on his injunction. Mame enters and tells him that a huge party is under way at Aunt Ester’s house, despite the fact that the place is surrounded by bulldozers. She laments that Harmond could have been mayor, then governor, and then senator if he had not gotten involved with the house. She tells him that she lost her job with the governor’s office because of the scandal. Harmond apologizes, but Mame wonders if they can stay together when he so casually makes decisions that impact both of their lives. Harmond is shocked by her admission and reminds her of their bond. She admits she still loves him, but there is obviously a new distance between them as she departs. Sterling enters reading a newspaper article about Harmond’s controversial injunction. Sterling is bemused by Harmond’s stand on the house, but notes he most likely will not win. Like Mame, Sterling intimates that Harmond has probably gotten his way so often in life that he has become accustomed to it. Roosevelt enters and rudely attempts to dismiss Sterling. They argue over what makes a man a man—namely, money. Sterling sums up the difference between him and Roosevelt, observing that he is a “nigger” but Roosevelt is a “negro” (a black man who thinks he is white). Roosevelt retorts that people like Sterling should get jobs, get educated, and stop doing drugs. Sterling dips his hand into his paint can and marks his face as if with war paint. He declares war on Roosevelt and leaves. Roosevelt informs Harmond that the judge has dismissed the injunction and the house will be demolished. Harmond then launches into a speech about how this is just another example of oppression—that racism is not gone; it has simply become more covert and polite. Roosevelt finally tells Harmond that he bought him out of the development deal using Bernie Smith’s money. Harmond again accuses Roosevelt of being used by Bernie as a black face for his business dealings. They argue, and Harmond throws Roosevelt out. As he goes, Harmond gives him back his Tiger Woods poster and they say their good-byes, their friendship truly over. Harmond grabs the paint and paintbrush and exits (in some productions, Harmond paints his face as Sterling did). He can be heard singing “Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here!” as the play ends.