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Black and White

Summer Hill Seven and Lela Elam: Fist to fist, if not eye to eye

August Wilson, in case you're not a fan or happened to miss the obits in 2005, was a half-black, half-white American playwright who, in a scattershot way, attempted and completed one of the most ambitious projects in the history of American theater. That project was "The Pittsburgh Cycle," a series of ten plays exploring the lives of black Americans through each decade of the 20th Century (all but one of the plays was set in Pittsburgh; the exception, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, was set in 1920s Chicago).  Wilson's subject matter, especially in the cycle's later decades, was essentially quotidian; he wrote high dramas cobbled together out of the happenstance of daily life. Some of his plays, like Jitney (1970s) and Radio Golf (1990s), wrought such extraordinary drama out of ordinary lives that they'd be pure soap operas if it weren't for Wilson's propensity for soaring, poetic monologues.

"The Cycle"'s plays are often funny and sometimes contain elements of magical realism (a 285-year-old washer of souls; a city of bones). And they are fiendishly difficult to get right. The way Wilson blends mundaneness with weirdness and the way his monologues can ennoble even his most wretched characters — to do these shows, you've got to stay with Wilson through it all. Plenty of smart actors and directors have failed trying.

I tell you this to better discuss the grounds on which the Mosaic Theatre's production of Radio Golf fails or succeeds. Radio Golf is the story of a young Hill District man, a scion of the wealthy Wilks real estate family. Though the Hill District is a blasted neighborhood (so much so that the Wilks is actually delighted to hear his hometown called a "blight"), Wilks has gone to the right schools and made the right connections: With a phone call, he can have police citations canceled, houses sold on the cheap without going to auction, the CEO of Whole Foods agree to some ambitious neighborhood development plan. Now he has decided to run for mayor.

That neighborhood development plan is the very thing that'll clinch the election. Good condos, stores, and restaurants have not been seen in the Hill District for a while, and if Harmond Wilks could change all that, Pittsburgh would be pretty impressed. It shouldn't even be that hard: Sweet-talk some of the good-ol'-boy corporate execs he went to college with or met on the golf course, demolish a few abandoned houses, and let the construction crews do their work. Make a couple of cute campaign signs ("Hold Me to It" is the slogan he goes with), and there you have it: Pittsburgh's first black mayor.

Problem is, one of the houses he means to demolish isn't abandoned. It belonged to Aunt Ester, the aforementioned soul washer, and is currently inhabited by Elder Joseph Barlow, an old, broke, utterly atavistic repository of folksy, placid wisdom. He's like a stoic plucked from ancient Greece, given lessons in downhominess, and set loose in the ghettoes of Pittsburgh.

Should Wilks demolish Barlow's house, purchased from the city by methods of dubious legality (Barlow owed back taxes and didn't know it; Wilks bought it on the cheap before it went to auction; Barlow wasn't told)? Or should Wilks piss off his investors?  Both positions have their advocates. Wilks' friend and business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, is all for the bulldozers. He is a success-crazed, golf-obsessed social climber, and the crumbling old house represents everything he loathes and resents about the black community he came from. In agreement is Wilks' wife, Mame. She's not obsessed with golf, but she's on the verge of getting a cushy job with the governor of Pennsylvania, and the play does not find her in an especially charitable mood. In opposition to these powerful, upwardly mobile folks is Barlow himself and an ex-con war veteran named Sterling Johnson, who scrapes by doing odd construction jobs.

So we have a clash of vaunted American ideals. Most of them, like newness versus tradition and money versus morals, have always seemed at least vaguely oppositional. Others are less so: In Radio Golf, sometimes success itself seems to be the enemy of the traditional life and comforts enjoyed by the most sanguine of the Hill District's residents. This is tricky territory, and as always, arguments from all sides are elevated by Wilson's writing — even the shameless Hicks is allowed his dignity in Wilson's America. During his one stratospheric monologue, you may even find yourself agreeing with him.

Unfortunately, either director Richard Jay Simon or actor Robert Strain didn't care for Hicks as much as Wilson did. Here, he's a cartoon of desperate assimilationism. Look at his face as he dreams of the rich people he can meet on the golf course — he's as moonstruck as Romeo calling up to Juliet's balcony. You almost want to hand the guy a fan just to keep him from fainting.

In Mosaic's production, everybody on the money-and-power side of the debate is treated with about the same amount of respect. Lela Elam, as Mame Wilks, is almost wasted here: In only one or two moments, can you see how hard Mame has worked for her success, how much it's cost her, and how boiling angry she is at having it all threatened by an old man in a dirty house. Otherwise, she's a placeholder: an officious little busy-body contemptibly concerned with material things.

Her husband, as the play's only genuinely dynamic character, starts out as a well-meaning money-and-power enthusiast and is then supposed to change into something else. In this production, he manages neither. Despite having the lead role, Summer Hill Seven is the only actor here whose failure cannot be attributed to a lack of empathy. His vocal production is weak (in every line, he sounds like a fifth-grade teacher's pet asking if he can please use the restroom), and despite his mayoral ambitions, he conveys all the gravitas of Shirley Temple. Worse, he plays Wilks as though any successful black person must necessarily move and sound precisely like Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Witness his wrath when he declares that taking a man's house "ain't right"; recoil in fear as he raps his knuckles on his desk in a dainty effusion of rage.

Thanks to Hill's childishness and Mosaic's plain interpretative aversion to money and power, in only about half of this production's scenes can you see Radio Golf's real potential. Most of those scenes involve John Archie, who plays Barlow. He is, to put it plainly, astonishing: singular and cosmic in his understanding of the world and yet so ordinary that you might think you remember him from your own neighborhood. W. Paul Bodie's character — Johnson, the ex-con vet — seems to melt into Archie's, but he has his moments too. Listen for the monologue in which he talks about the war, about realizing that if another human life means nothing, then his own must be forfeit as well. In one form or another, this idea — that there is no sliding scale for the value of human life — is at the bottom of much of Wilson's work. He treated his characters as equitably as he could, wrote them as they might want to be written. Mosaic didn't pick up on this. Watch this production and you'll get the idea that somebody's showing you villains where Wilson was merely delivering people.


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