Scenes from African-American life

“We have one shot at this.” That’s what August Wilson, arguably the greatest African-American playwright of our time, told Todd Kreidler, Wilson’s youthful collaborator when Wilson learned of his inoperable liver cancer in June 2005. By “this,” Wilson meant Radio Golf, the epic final play of a 10-play cycle Wilson began in 1984. Each drama sheds light upon African-American life in late 20th-century America. Radio Golf, set in Pittsburgh’s own Hill District in 1997, magnificently sums up all of Wilson’s devastation and aspiration for the future of a country still reeling from a past of slavery and racism. Radio Golf is playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through Nov. 2.

Harmond Wilks, the protagonist, one of Pittsburgh’s local leaders and a successful real estate developer, is poised to become the first African-American mayor of Pittsburgh until an old bearded man wanders into Harmond’s campaign office one day. This man, Old Joe Barlow, has been attempting to repaint an abandoned house that is scheduled to be torn down shortly in order to make way for a new shopping complex, a political move that Harmond hopes will revive the Hill District and secure his position as mayor. Harmond soon discovers that Old Joe holds more secrets and wits than initially apparent as the clarity of who legally owns the old house becomes blurred. This sets up a powerful and optimistic exploration of human morality, a neighborhood’s history, and racial boundaries.

Wilson’s creation of Radio Golf is a drama within itself. Finding out about his fatal liver condition, Wilson employed Kreidler, a young and successful playwright, to aid him in writing and rehearsing Radio Golf. Wilson’s wife, Constanza Romero, recalls how Kreidler had simply been an apprentice to Wilson until Wilson’s death in 2005, when Wilson really “thought of [Kreidler] as a son.” The duo was attempting to write a masterpiece, a culmination of Wilson’s life and playwright career. The collaboration yielded nothing less than that as they created a work cackling with hilarity and brimming with poetic and moving dialogue.

With such rich and provocative dialogue comes debate over the central message of the play. Romero believes that “The play is about ... what kind of debt you owe to your race and to your heritage. Or if you are going to go out there and just earn money or status or a reputation.”

Throughout the drama, the reality of this idealistic statement is challenged. This is apparent even with the new complex Harmond is developing, as he wants to name it the “Sarah Degree Health Center,” after Pittsburgh’s first registered black female nurse, while the primarily white City Council adamantly asserts that the name should be “Model Cities Health Center.” Roosevelt, a longtime friend of Harmond, soon becomes a foil as he disagrees with Harmond’s naming of the complex and as he promotes his own views on what the American Dream is about: making money. This disagreement leads to an emotionally charged climax of heritage versus future, money versus happiness, and success versus reputation.

The acting in the Pittsburgh Public Theater production of Radio Golf is superb and consistent. Morocco Omari, often seen in Prison Break and 24, plays the strong but questioning Harmond Wilks with conviction and poetic expression. Montae Russell delivers a fiery and provocative Johnson while E. Milton Wheeler expresses the subtle desperation of Roosevelt very well even though he occasionally let his emotions affect the enunciation of his dialogue. Tyla Abercrumbie, with her performance of Mame Wilks, and Alfred H. Wilson, playing Joe Barlow, also demonstrate their acting virtuosity with their consistency of character and ability to deliver subtle but profound lines with simplicity, humor, and grace.

As Radio Golf, along with August Wilson’s successful life and career, approached its conclusion, one has to ponder the significance of personal reputation. After an entire play of conversation and interaction, Harmond ultimately finds himself alone with a pensive photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. and having to decide what is most important to him. Radio Golf seems to be Wilson’s final way of saying to the world, “We only have one shot at this.”