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ESSEX NEWS DAILY: West Orange director returns to the theater with ‘Radio Golf’

By Amanda Valentovic

RED BANK, NJ — Brandon J. Dirden’s production of “Radio Golf” was one of the thousands of theater casualties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; the show was shut down in March 2020 early in its run at the Two Rivers Theater in Red Bank. Now, 20 months later, the cast is ready to be back in front of a live audience, and it will be when the August Wilson play opens on Nov. 6.

“I’m grateful we’re able to be in the same room,” Dirden, who lives in West Orange and is directing the show, said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 31. “I don’t want to take it for granted ever again.”

The play, which is the 10th and final work in Wilson’s American Century Cycle of theater pieces, is set in 1997 and tells the story of a real estate developer who is determined to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh and revitalize the city’s Hill District. It’s the sixth of the 10 ACC plays that Two Rivers has staged; Dirden acted in the theater company’s production of “Jitney” in 2012.

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Nothing has changed in terms of the way the play will be staged, but a lot has happened since the cast and crew were sent home more than a year and a half ago. According to Dirden, the story has become even more relevant.

“There are so many themes running through this play about how to be in a community together,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been deprived of for 20 months. Even though we’re all different, how are we now going to move forward in the way that’s best for everyone?”

Wilson’s work documents the experience of black people in America throughout the 20th century; the American Century Cycle plays are each set in a different decade, from the 1900s through the 1990s. According to Dirden, the Black Lives Matter protests that happened last summer after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May are another element that make this play more relevant as it reopens this week.

“I think it’s a more resonant show now,” he said. “(Wilson) was trying to say these things 20 years ago, and it took the events of the last year to really appreciate the questions he was asking. It’s not a different show, but it resonates differently. It rings more profoundly because we’re different now.”

Several of Wilson’s plays have been turned into movies in the last few years, including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which was released in 2020, and “Fences,” which came out in 2016. Dirden has acted in several Wilson-penned plays over the course of his career and has been studying them for longer. He’s been waiting for people outside the theater world to become more familiar with the playwright.

“For years and years, I wondered why no one knew who he was, this brilliant writer,” Dirden said. “It’s a joy to see the rest of the world catch up. Particularly with the younger generation, there’s a renewed interest or a new interest if they weren’t familiar with him already.”

As a performer and a director, Dirden has been on both sides of the curtain. He has both directed and performed in Wilson plays, which he said gives him an advantage, because he knows how to work with actors — after all, he is one.

“I can afford a level of grace and help guide them,” Dirden said. “That may give me an advantage. What I love about theater is the collaborative process. I don’t know everything about everything; I want to learn from actors and directors. I appreciate the value of that.”

After almost two years away from live theater, Dirden knows what he and audience members were missing out on. There were unexpected things he missed about it, such as “that moment when the lights go down and it’s all possibilities.”

“It’s quiet and dark. It’s small, but it’s something you only experience when you’re there. Anything can happen.”