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Dear Mr. Wilson:
It’s been some time since 2005, when Radio Golf premiered—a prophetic play completed as you transitioned from life to death. It’s spitfire and risky. It’s like Ready to Die. It’s like Biggie Smalls. It’s like Life After Death. A metaphorical mic drop at the end of an epic opus—the final installment of 10 plays spanning 100 years—completed just months before your final curtain call. Job well done, my friend. Standing ovation. Take a bow.
As you must know, a production of Radio Golf is running in Philadelphia on the Arden Theatre’s F. Otto Haas Stage. Folks driving down 2nd Street in Old City meet a poster-sized graphic for the show, looming large on the side of the building: March 23 through April 16, directed by Kash Goins. (Shouts to Fox Chase Bank for sponsoring this production.)
The Arden has positioned Radio Golf perfectly in its season. Your play about a mayoral election is well-timed to elucidate Philadelphia’s upcoming primary for mayor, city council, commissioners, judges, happening on May 16, a month after the show wraps.
Or perhaps it’s an uncanny coincidence that your characters are asking the same questions onstage that Philadelphians get to ask ourselves off stage as we prepare for another pivotal changing of the guard. The biggest question of all being, “How to hold THEM to it?” which you ask audiences time and time and time again in Radio Golf.
Who is THEM?
The Wilks campaign
Mr. Wilson, if it is okay with you, I’ll give a quick synopsis in case someone who’s never seen Radio Golf ends up reading this letter. Your play takes place in 1997 in a world where wealthy urban real-estate developer Harmond Wilks (Kesserack Kemnew) is running to be mayor of his violence-and-blight-ridden town. (Sound familiar?) And if people know you, Mr. Wilson, they know that almost all of your plays take place in your childhood hometown (the Hill District of Pittsburgh), but (to keep it in the 1990s), if they don’t know you, now they know.
Harmond’s candidacy is supported by his devoted but self-interested wife, Mame Wilks (Zuhairah), and his flashy but self-righteous friend, Roosevelt Hicks (Phillip Brown). On Harmond’s other side, Sterling Johnson (Brian Anthony Wilson), a former bank-robber turned contractor, and Elder Joe (Damien J. Wallace), a gibberish-speaking sage on the stage, interrogate the aspiring mayor’s values.
This all-star ensemble cast, under the direction of Goins, is as clear, confident, and cool as you are—they are at home with your work and they are certainly at home with each other. They embody your characters with grace. Stage design (David P. Gordon), lights (Thom Weaver), costumes (LeVonne Lindsay), all praises due—even though I wished they’d turned up the radio just a bit. That’s my only-est, nit-pickiest critique. Turn up the radio on Radio Golf for Mr. Wilson.
Anyway, standing in the way of our protagonist’s next big redevelopment deal is Elder Joe’s dilapidated family home at 1839 Wylie Avenue—who actually owns this HOME, the play asks. The city? The family? The developers? The community? The land? And will Harmond tear down that HOME at 1839 Wylie Avenue to leave his mark—making way for Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble (sound familiar)? Or will he leave his mark in ways that honor the HOME even at the risk of losing the support of his wife, best friend, and constituents?
What we say, what we want, what we do
As Elder Joe puts it, “Some people say you gotta tear it down to fix it. Some people say you gotta build it up to fix it. Some people say they don’t know how to fix it. Some people say they don’t want to be bothered with fixing it. You mix them all in a pot and stir it up and you got America.”
Gentrification, incarceration, education, housing, safety, poverty, brutality, economics—and money, power, positioning, pandering—it’s all there in the world of Radio Golf, just like it is in Philadelphia.
So what do WE do? What do WE do when there are contradictions between what candidates say they’ll do and what actually gets done? And contradictions in what WE say we want and the world WE have collectively created?
Do WE fail our politicians, and even worse, fail ourselves, fail our futures, by not learning to practice accountability? What does accountability even look like? And as we take a look at the candidates in Philadelphia, like Harmond, raising money and making promises for the future, I’m reminded that we must NOT, as you instruct in the play, Mr. Wilson, “take no wooden nickels.”
My two cents? An election is a silly thing to waste millions on anyway—mudslinging TV ads, stacks of fliers that end up in trash heaps—when, if you put those resources behind grassroots efforts addressing gentrification, incarceration, education, housing, safety, poverty, brutality, and/or economics, you are literally out in the streets, people know who you are, and see you, and then we vote for you. No? Yes!
Now imagine, Mr. Wilson, if the millions raised for campaigning went toward a more useful cause, like theaters as gathering spaces where everyday folks assemble to connect their efforts on gentrification, incarceration, housing, safety, poverty, brutality, education, and economics TOGETHER. Feel me?
For the record
Mr. Wilson, this right-on-time production of Radio Golf asks, have we become aces at playing somebody else’s game? Is Tiger Woods goals? And if Tiger ain’t goals, who is? August Wilson, perhaps?
“I just want to say for the record: you are our king. And your work is so thrilling and delicious and dazzling and funny,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks said to you in your final public interview in 2005. Her heart and mind clouded with sadness because the media had just announced you had terminal liver cancer and would likely die as Radio Golf headed to the stage.
“Thank you,” you said with the cool confidence of a poet, before answering the biggest question of the production: “How do we hold them to it?”
Who is THEM?
You said, “Well, it’s the community. You can’t survive by yourself … In order to survive you need a community of people who can support you. And we’ve always been those people that rise up in the face of adversity.”
I hope folks rise up and head to the Arden to grapple with the questions of Radio Golf—because although this play is about a game, it ain’t all fun and games in Philadelphia. Feel me?
Jeannine A. Cook
What, When, Where
Radio Golf. By August Wilson, directed by Kash Goins. $28-$58. Through April 16, 2023, at Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
Arden Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be an audio-described and captioned performance on Friday, April 7, at 8pm, and Saturday, April 8, at 2pm.
Masks not required.
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