We [must] recognize the fact that we are African people ... that we were slaves ... and that since we have a common past, we have a common future."
Playwright August Wilson spelled out his very personal vision of the African-American experience in a 1998 interview with Bill Moyers. Nine years later, his play Radio Golf opened on Broadway, continuing the discussion of identity and race.
Now onstage at the Cleveland Play House in a co-production with the Indiana Repertory Theatre, this intriguingly titled piece completed Wilson's 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle" set in that city's challenged Hill District. And the tension is palpable — of black people trying to move forward in society while still paying due respect to tradition and the past.
Thanks to an outstanding performance by Abdul Salaam El Razzac, at least one character perfectly captures the Wilsonian vibe. Unfortunately, the impact of that performance, as well as the power of a densely written and often poetic play, is softened by a lethargic pace and a couple of actors who don't capture the fierce glint of the playwright's words.
Harmond Wilks is an energetic, well-educated up-and-comer, having returned to the run-down neighborhood where he grew up to run his father's real estate company. He also is using an urban renewal development corporation to pave his way toward becoming Pittsburgh's first black mayor.
Harmond is supported by his equally ambitious wife Mame and his lifelong buddy Roosevelt, who is vice-president of a local bank and hot to tap into the white power structure. Roosevelt is schmoozing with white movers and shakers on the golf course, and is offered a window-dressing job at a recently purchased radio station.
But the bold dreams and acquisitive natures of this trio are impeded by two older men: an ex-con construction worker named Sterling and the poor but imposing Elder Joseph Barlow.
Barlow owns a house that sits in the middle of a projected high-rise development, and he refuses to sell when Harmond offers him market value so the old homestead can be demolished. Caught between preserving a house symbolic of the city's African-American history and scoring a major financial coup, Harmond is deeply conflicted as he tries to choose a way forward.
As Barlow, El Razzac is a slow moving but entirely dominating presence as he subtly manipulates the conversation in Wilks' realty office. Sure of his history and uncompromising in his principles, El Razzac's Barlow is funny, insightful, and thoroughly compelling.
If the other actors were functioning at the same level, this would be a production for the ages. Instead, the rest of the cast turns in less galvanizing performances under the direction of Lou Bellamy.
In the linchpin role of Harmond, James Craven exudes plenty of smooth-talking, jive-stepping confidence. But in more intense moments he is often over-torqued, at times almost laughably so. This makes his sincerity feel more manufactured than organic.
As Roosevelt and Mame, David Alan Anderson and Austene Van deliver clear, workmanlike delineations of their characters. However, when Roosevelt goes off for his golf date, he returns wearing a hideous outfit that Urkel himself wouldn't have been caught dead in.
Sadly, the proceedings grind to a halt every time Terry Bellamy as Sterling hits the stage. He turns what should be a crisp and skeptical character into a meandering and fuzzy-brained philosophizer — a man with too much to say and too much time in which to say it.
At almost three hours with an intermission, Radio Golf takes about as long as 18 holes at Little Met. And that stretches Wilson's luminous story too far out of shape.