A great project underway in New Jersey theater has hit an exciting new high point.
It was 2012 when Two River Theater in Red Bank staged August Wilson’s “Jitney” at the start of a commitment to produce the entirety of Wilson’s monumental “American Century Cycle”: 10 plays, each examining black life in a different decade of the twentieth century. Each installment has been wonderfully produced, guided principally by strong direction. Ruben Santiago-Hudson helmed “Jitney,” and then returned for “Two Trains Running” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Brandon J. Dirden made his directorial debut with “Seven Guitars,” followed by last season’s “King Hedley II,” and returns to the director’s chair now for “Radio Golf.” All these productions celebrated Wilson’s vision and craft, while making the continued relevance of his work beyond question (what remains for Two River are some of the Cycle’s most familiar plays: “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Gem of the Ocean,” and the play Wilson considered his signature, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”).
It has been a stellar run in Red Bank, but the current production of “Radio Golf” is the best of the theater’s Wilson productions to date. Its five-person cast is riveting, locked in individually and collectively to the soul of Wilson’s characters, and Dirden has found his full voice as a director. The play pulsates between comedy and searing social critique while its performers craft full, complex characters. Dirden, whose earlier directorial work showed strong, developing promise, works expertly to compose a nuanced canvas attentive to both the specific events of this play and the larger social context in which they participate. It is a treasure of a production.
Wilson’s final play—premiering in April 2005 and completing his life’s work less than six months before his death—“Radio Golf” concerns itself with the twin threats of gentrification and commercialization that began their onslaught in black neighborhoods across the country in the 1990s. Harmond Wilks (Carl Hendrick Louis) is a real estate developer native to Pittsburgh’s Hill District with designs on running for mayor; his wife Mame (Amber Iman) runs his campaign while managing her own ambitious career. Harmond and longtime friend Roosevelt Hicks (Robbie Williams) have bought up a great deal of dilapidated property around the Hill District in order to demolish it and make room for a gleaming new ten-story apartment complex featuring a Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble.
A hitch in the plan emerges with the entrance of Elder Joseph Barlow, or “Old Joe” (Wayne DeHart), who claims ownership of one of the houses slated for demolition and quickly gains the support of staunchly loyal local handyman, Sterling Johnson (Nathan James). The house in question turns out to be the one formally inhabited by Aunt Ester, the embodied spirit of Wilson’s Hill District, whose death Two River audiences heard about last season in “King Hedley II” (set in 1985), and the question of its preservation or destruction becomes a battle for Harmond Wilks’s soul: will he give himself over to crass capitalism or fight for the vibrant legacy of his hometown and ancestral community?
The most central force in this battle is Old Joe, who is the unassuming but powerful community sage who just might stop Harmond from tumbling headlong into a world of big profits at the expense of community strength. In this role DeHart anchors the show with an engrossing presence. Much of his time on stage is spent sitting restfully in a simple chair downstage on Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s beautiful set, and the yarns he spins may seem tangential, but Dirden and DeHart tap effectively into the heart of Wilson’s play that lies between the lines Old Joe delivers. Old Joe must fill the void left by Aunt Ester’s death, and DeHart shows clearly that this work is about synchronizing with and supporting the spirit of Hill District community. He hopes to bring Harmond into that sync, but knows he cannot force such a change: DeHart’s Old Joe is patient, unimposing, and deeply wise.
As the play begins to revolve around the axis of Old Joe, the rest of the characters come to define themselves in response to his force. Iman and Williams both do important and subtle work over the course of the play to evolve their characters in staunch resistance to the soul-searching offered by Old Joe. Iman’s Mame becomes increasingly disenfranchised with her husband and concerned about her future, and Williams’s Roosevelt Hicks grows significantly more confident and demonstrative the more he embraces the capitalist allure within his grasp.
On the other side is James’s defiant, assertive Sterling Johnson (Two River audiences might remember Owiso Odera’s ebullient performance as the same character’s younger self in 2013’s “Two Trains Running,” set in 1969). Sterling arrives at Harmond’s office jovial and bright, looking for a job from the neighborhood guy who has made it big, but as it becomes more clear that Harmond’s construction project is a threat to the soul of the Hill District, James shows Sterling to be a no-nonsense fighter for a moral code of the neighborhood. This Sterling is friendly and warm until precisely the time for such graciousness runs out, and then James shows clearly that the line from loyalty over to profit is one that he is not willing to cross.
In the midst of this storm is Hendrick Louis’s Harmond, who remains clear-eyed and driven through much of the play, only to have the foundation of much of what he believes rattled and cracked. Hendrick Louis takes the opportunity late in the play to show compellingly how Harmond’s choices remain deeply entrenched in his moral convictions, even if his certainty in those convictions might waiver. The play’s closing moments show us a Harmond who seems quite different from the opening scenes, but Hendrick Louis makes clear that the character has not somehow radically changed, but has rather evolved in constant reference to his guiding principles.
Dirden and his team emphasize that the struggles and joys of each character are unique and vital, but where this “Radio Golf” finds great success is in cultivating the fertile space between the lives of these five characters and the countless ripples of relevance extending from the play’s events out through the past, present, and future (Two River’s decision to stage “Radio Golf” in an election year seems hardly a coincidence). This production shows that while the play is the story of five people in a relatively small community, it is also a microcosm of opportunities and challenges running like a matrix of veins throughout American life. “Radio Golf” is among the lesser produced and respected of Wilson’s plays, but Dirden and Two River have located and are amplifying the show’s great power.