We got the keys

Jan 21, 2009 at 12:00 am

In a bit of impeccable timing, August Wilson's last play, about an African-American running for office, is getting its first Michigan staging at the Detroit Repertory Theatre the week of the Obama inauguration. Wilson, who racked up Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Desk awards for his plays on the 20th century black experience, capped the cycle of 10 plays with this story of an African-American seeking high political office. The Rep picks its shows months in advance, and it's unlikely they could have known that Radio Golf might open within a week of the inauguration of the first black U.S. president. That said, their timing couldn't be better, and the play hits with mind-bending relevance at times.

The very funny, fast-paced story, Radio Golf, is set in 1997. Real estate heir Harmond Wilks is running to be Pittsburgh's first black mayor, and he wants to make a statement by locating his campaign and redevelopment offices in the community he's originally from, a part of town known as "the Hill." His ambitious adviser-wife Mame thinks it's a terrible idea to set up shop in a neighborhood with only 3,500 people, most of whom don't vote, but Harmond loves it.

But his connection to the community soon dredges up some personal insecurities he'd rather forget, particularly the long shadows cast by the men in his family. When local fix-it man Sterling Johnson comes in looking for job, he recognizes Harmond, quickly telling how he misses Harmond's brother, who was killed in Vietnam. Elder Joseph Barlow, aka "Old Joe," wanders in seeking legal help, and remembers Wilks' powerful father — and embarrasses Harmond by recalling him as an ice cream-eating kid.

This entertaining culture clash has the rank-and-file of the black community correcting its out-of-touch upper crust. The residents want working streetlights, but Wilks' redevelopment plan calls for demolitions to attract a Whole Foods, a Starbucks, a high-rise apartment building, a golf driving range and more parking. When Wilks talks of "bringing back" the Hill, Johnson admonishes him, "Don't say you're going to bring the Hill back. It's dead. Say you're going to put something in its place." And Old Joe questions Wilks' professed idealism, asking, if he wins the mayoralty, will he follow the contours of money and power as his father did?

In counterpoint to the community, Harmond's lifelong pal Roosevelt Hicks joins him in the office, helping oversee their redevelopment venture. Hicks is a climber, hostile to Johnson and Old Joe, and is working his way up to vice president at Mellon Bank. He emulates the lifestyles of his white fellow executives, and his passion for golf is a recurring source of humor in the play. When his wealthy colleague Bernie Smith wants to buy a local radio station using Hicks as a front to qualify for a minority tax break, Hicks couldn't be happier. In one of the play's many references to keys and "getting in," Hicks gloats, "This is the time — I'm in the room!"

And Harmond's ambitious wife Mame is staking her whole career on her husband's mayoral run, trying to land a job with the governor. She and Hicks continually try to pull Wilks back on-message, despite his affection for his old neighborhood and its residents. But soon the partners learn that Old Joe has a legitimate claim to the old house at 1839 Wylie Ave., endangering the entire redevelopment project. Wilks is suddenly confronted with his dual allegiances. Will he stick with the plan? Or will he endanger his business plan, even his run for mayor, to save the Federalist brick structure?

In playwright Wilson's "century cycle," each play is set in a different decade, and most of the plays are set in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, "the Hill," Wilson grew up in. And, thanks to Wilson's penchant for symbolism, his plays have motifs that crop up repeatedly. In Radio Golf, they are keys — powerful signifiers in light of the shackles of past slavery — and references to entering an open door, gaining access to the halls of power.

Originally a poet, Wilson's ear was attuned to the cadences of urban slang, enabling him to write dialogue that crackled with vitality. The Rep's talented performers, under the guidance of director Harold Hogan, bring the vivid words to life. As Harmond Wilks, Anthony Lucas has to play it straight, and he's the perfect foil for the story's earthier characters. Although Lucas seemed less effective at conjuring the frosty, "it's complicated" professional marriage with Jennifer Jones as wife Mame, better were Michael Joseph's funny, bold and sassy turn as the vulgar and confrontational Hicks, and Nelson Jones' performance as fix-it man Sterling Johnson, which sounded straight from the curb.

But the runaway player in this show is Detroit stage vet Council Cargle. Cargle nails Old Joe, and the audience warmed to him every time he entered stage left, his hands fluttering over his heart after walking up "the Hill" to Wilks' campaign office. Cargle gives Wilson's character a windjamming charm that's happily oblivious of Wilks' lawyerly reasoning. And his comic timing is impeccable, as when ruefully remembering the darkest dates in the neighborhood's old days with a deadpan flourish that got steady laughs.

As usual, set designer-builder Harry Wetzel has created an impressive space, giving the inner-city office a ramshackle warmth. Some canned music seemed perhaps unnecessary, but some unusual "cowboys and Indians" sound cues were inspired choices. And the costuming changes naturally included at least one outlandish, over-the-top wardrobe change, a golf outfit that got repeated laughs.

But amid all the snazzy costumes and vaudeville-style routines are more serious discussions of blacks jockeying for office. On the subject of giving an African-American the keys to power, Wilson's play asks many questions. At incisive moments, some characters question the value of having Oprah or black astronauts against the backdrop of persistent black poverty. At times, the play seems to question the value of having "the keys" in the first place, if the system keeps grinding on rightly or wrongly. Wilson leaves it open-ended, but for Wilks it's ultimately a question of ethics and integrity. As he's lectured at one point by a streetwise inquisitor, "You ain't got to study up on right and wrong."

Shows Thursday through Sunday, until March 22; $17 advance, $20 at the door; with intermission, three hours. The Detroit Repertory Theatre is at 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit; 313-868-1347.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]