We saw August Wilson’s final play Radio Golf at the Seattle Rep on its second “pay what you can” night Tuesday.
I wasn’t expecting to like it all that much. We’ve gone to several Wilson plays over the years since we were lucky enough to catch a then-unknown Charles Dutton in the Yale Rep premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom while I was in graduate school, and Dutton in drama school, at Yale in 1984.
The real fire of Ma Rainey came from recent ex-con Dutton’s performance. The play, like all August Wilson plays I’ve seen since, was amusing in parts, full of conflict in others, and entertaining throughout – but seemed of historical interest merely, speaking little to the concerns of the present day. It was like going to a museum, or attending a lecture, or listening to a Wynton Marsalis concert – a fine representation of the past, but of limited moment now. It was like seeing Raisin in the Sun…today, not when it first hit the stage. The passions it presented, once so vital, had long since dried up.
Or in other worlds, for me Wilson’s “Pittsburgh,” “African-American,” or “20th-Century” Cycle (the name is still in flux) has always been a lot like the Intiman’s American Cycle – whose flaccid presentation of the Grapes of Wrath goaded me to begin this blog – the antithesis of an engaged theater, too historicist to be downright political. The kind of stuff that would set Brecht rolling in his grave – if it didn’t put him to sleep again first.
But boy, was I wrong. Radio Golf turned out to be the most activist play I’ve seen in many a moon. Wilson seems to have been patiently setting the scene for its political fireworks all these years – and emboldened by his own impending doom (he found out he was dying of liver cancer while developing it) – or by his Cycle’s arrival (at last) at the near-contemporary late 1990s – decided to let his arrows fly at his present-day enemies at last.
So who’s the villain of the piece? Hold onto your hats: not so much whitey as the upper-middle class black guys who conspire with rich and powerful white guys to become their junior, affirmative-action-friendly cohorts, even if it means betraying the black community that spawned them and their own upper-middle class black friends and partners.
Wilson here embodies this type in Roosevelt Hicks, the partner in a condo redevelopment with our hero Harmond Wilks. Hicks at first engages our sympathies complaining about how boss at the bank resents being forced by the board to promote him over his own candidate to Vice President – we at first think the boss must be prejudiced, and only later realize Hicks must have been exploiting the board’s desire to appear progressive. Hicks quits to become the black front man in a rich white golf partner’s takeover of a black radio station – even here we are rooting for him, he has such fun hosting his own program on his and Wilks’s favorite passtime, the rich white man’s game of golf.
But Hicks finally loses all sympathy when he conspires with said rich white golf partner to push Wilks out of the condo development and illegally raze a house that was once the pillar of the black Hill community to please Barnes & Noble. Wilks opts out to join the resistance.
(Starbucks, thankfully, comes out smelling like a rose: they thought Wilks’s plan to preserve the house and build the condos round it was just fine – Wilson’s final farewell to his adopted city’s biggest cultural landmark, I suppose.)
In retrospect, I guess I should have seen this coming. I haven’t seen or read it again in two decades, but as I recall the moment of greatest conflict in Ma Rainey comes when trumpet player Dutton confronts the title character about the compromises she’s made with white men to become a success – and she bests him with her defense that without her, he’d never have had the opportunity to make a name for himself as an artist, and be in a position to think about rejecting her and striking out on his own. She did what she had to in unpromising circumstances not only to succeed herself, but to bring admiration to the black community through her artistry, and give her band members a measure of success as well.
Today the case has changed. For talented people of every color, circumstances are much more promising. But do they only seek their own success – or to raise the boat of everyone in their community? Sadly – like rich white people have for centuries – mainly the former.
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer – so much so, that today it’s reached the tipping point last attained in the late 1920s. The ship of state must soon founder – or so we can only hope. Whose side are you on?
August Wilson with his dying breath lent his voice to the only logical choice for the most of us. It’s a pity he could not live on to make more of his last, most dramatic initiative.
We’ll just have to take care of that for ourselves, I guess.