Sit back, put your feet up (figuratively) and get in the groove as the Ensemble Theatre takes you to places you've never been — except perhaps in another August Wilson play. Set in 1997, Radio Golf is the final work in Wilson's epic ten-play "Pittsburgh Cycle" — his mammoth, electrifying dissection of the American black experience that includes a play for every decade in the 20th century and features such theatrical wonders as Gem of the Ocean, Fences, The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.
Golf is wondrously accessible, whether or not you know the lineage of the characters or places that resound so forcefully throughout all of Wilson's century-spanning dramas. Elegantly crafted, his plays resonate — that's his grace as a playwright, that nothing misses his gaze. So vivid and out there, Wilson's characters leap off the stage, impelled by the force of history, prejudice or love. To these lost souls, history is a potent purifier, because you can only move forward when the past is understood and honestly faced.
In Radio Golf, we move into upper middle-class black territory. It has taken a century for Wilson's characters to make it big and, man, have they arrived. Whether or not the move's been beneficial is the irony here. Blacks are now real estate developers who run for mayor, or bank vice presidents in stylish suits who drive leather-clad Lexuses to the golf club. They've got it all. Unfortunately, they've lost their history, their language, their outrage. They've become Type-A white men.
The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 713-520-0055.
Through October 19. $18-$27.
We're still in Wilson's beloved Hill District of Pittsburgh, the city's black section, but it's slated for demolition by the very man running for mayor: handsome, charismatic Harmond Wilks (Benjamin Cain, Jr.). His equally stylish wife Mame (Cheray Dawn Josiah) is up for the job of governor's press secretary, after successfully maneuvering her husband into the mayor's office. Best friend and business partner Roosevelt Hicks (Broderick Jones) is ripe to buy into a lucrative radio station and devote all his leisure time to the love of his life, golf. The only color they all care about anymore is green.
Everything proceeds smoothly except for one small blip they hadn't planned on: Elder Joseph Barlow (Wayne DeHart), who morphs into a Category 5 that blows Harmond's elegant Lexus straight off the cliff. He owns the house that defiantly stands in the way of Harmond and Roosevelt's redevelopment scheme. Barlow is one of the signature crazies Wilson threads through his plays like some great theme of conscience. Sounding like a biblical jive prophet, Barlow spouts nonstop off-the-wall eloquence and wacky humor. He's nuts but not insane.
Coming to Barlow's aid (not that he needs any) is Sterling Johnson (Henry Edwards), a one-man construction union. He's got nothing in life but his toolbox, he says, but he's freer and richer than all of them. He knows the way morally, too. "You don't have to study up on right and wrong," he tells Harmond as he repaints the condemned house.
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It turns out that the honest and scrupulous Harmond has illegally foreclosed on Barlow without proper notice. The scandal of impropriety will wreck his mayoral dream. Mame is pissed; meanwhile, Roosevelt couldn't care less about the law. "Tear down that raggedy-ass eyesore!" he screams in frustration.
To those who know the cycle's history, the old house at 1839 Wiley was the home of legendary Aunt Ester, the ancient "washer of souls" whose personal ties reach back to the slave ships. She is the essence of the black experience. Anyone who doesn't acknowledge her presence, Wilson implies, is doomed, and to preserve "harmony," the house must be saved. The play loses some of its inherent poetry as it becomes a race against time to stave off the bulldozers, but the battle for Harmond's soul continues in the background. It's still the most potent melody.
Throughout, director Eileen Morris keeps all of Wilson's dramatic skeins taut. Her expert actors mesh as if woven together, as does the entire production, from James Thomas's lowbrow storefront set, to Eric Marsh's glowing light design, to Connie Bradshaw and Shirley Marks Whitmore's costuming.
The Ensemble quintet cast is a knockout, with DeHart joyously leading the parade. This mischievous stage veteran, this actor's actor, spins the role of old Barlow like a gyroscope. He can regale us with a lifetime of character just by sitting down and untying his shoelaces, as if to let his feet breathe. It's this kind of goofy, shining little detail that DeHart captures so effortlessly. He twirls his hat during Harmond's interrogation, and you can read through the lines and know what he's thinking just by watching that damned hat. This is glorious acting at its finest. If Wilson's eminent work weren't recommendation enough, DeHart's brilliant and sly interpretation would be worth the trip to the Ensemble Theatre. He and the play are not to be missed.