One of our Christmas presents last year was a gift certificate for The Studio Theatre, on 14th Street just blocks from where we used to live. After investigating the shows playing this season, we chose Radio Golf, August Wilson‘s last play in his Pittsburgh Cycle, completed just before his death in 2005. I had heard of August Wilson’s plays—even before the Obamas flew to NYC to see one—but had never seen a performance. The show last weekend was obviously popular; the theater was sold out and we’d had to bump our chosen performance date back a few weeks in order to get four seats together. The seats were excellent, in the center of the second or third row; definitely worth the wait.
The play itself was superb and engrossing. The actors were completely convincing, and the characters could have been around the corner in an office in DC. Although questioning gentrification itself wasn’t the point of the play, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to the dynamics that have been going on in DC for the past ten or fifteen years. Old houses being bought up for back taxes, poor and older black folks moving out of their neighborhoods to make way for high rise complexes with doormen and Starbucks ™ on the ground floor. Radio Golf takes that dynamic as the starting point and moves on to questions of ethics, of the ways in which these things move forward whether or not they are above-board in the beginning. The play succeeds at providing completely recognizable late-20th-century middle-class black characters while avoiding stereotypes. Wilson manages to convey the social context that produces the desire to move forward and never look back in a way that allows the audience to remain sympathetic even to the play’s less appealing character, the friend who is willing to be the black face that allows white investors to get a piece of the federal minority-headed project pie. Overall, it was a poignant example of how projects move beyond the control of the creator when big money becomes involved, and a reminder of why I wasn’t comfortable being part of this kind of revitalization by buying in similar areas in DC.
More than anything, Radio Golf made me want to see Wilson’s other plays, and I hope that a DC theater will start to perform the cycle again from the beginning. It’s rare to see such an insightful and accurate portrayal of city life balanced with both humor and compassion. Certainly, August Wilson’s talented eye and voice created the platform, but the five actors made the story come alive. We’ll definitely return for future productions.