August Wilson was a native of Pittsburgh’s Hill District who dedicated his career to capturing his neighborhood and the African-American experience. The nine plays in his Pittsburgh cycle were written over the course of two decades; their settings span 1904 to 1997. (A tenth Wilson play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not set in Pittsburgh, rounds out what’s also known as Wilson’s Century Cycle.)
Radio Golf closes out the Pittsburgh cycle. It premiered six months before Wilson’s 2005 death, at age 60. It’s a powerful work, addressing the themes of integrity, assimilation and ambition. Harmond Wilks, a local developer, is running to be Pittsburgh’s first black mayor while also preparing for the groundbreaking of an ambitious project to replace a run-down part of the Hill District with a set of sleek new buildings—including a Starbucks and a Barnes & Noble.
In the riveting new production at A Noise Within, Christian Telesmar plays Wilks. Earlier this year, the actor showed his range at Rogue Machine; here he imbues his character with strength and authority, as well as a quick wit and a principled core that’s gotten a little lost in his insider trappings.
DeJuan Christopher plays Wilks’ business partner and golfing buddy Roosevelt Hicks, balancing the line between giddy almost-mogul and tightly coiled defender of his hard-fought place in society.
Wilks’ wife Mame (Sydney A. Mason) has already settled into her role as behind-the-scenes guide. Her stylish outfits and elegant ways perfectly accessorize her determination to get her husband elected, with his real estate project the foundation of his power broker cred. She’s pragmatic and focused on moving forward, not looking back.
Into this self-congratulatory group come two locals not on the path to success. Former Wilks schoolmate Sterling Johnson (Matt Orduña), a convicted bank robber turned handyman, seeks work on the big project. Elder Joseph “Old Joe” Barlow (Alex Morris) has returned after a long absence to his family home, only to find it slated for imminent demolition. Orduña and Morris greatly enliven the show, bringing a sense of the Hill District’s legacy to its glitzy plans. Both actors excel at humor with an undercurrent of gravitas. They’re old school, but you’d better take them seriously. Sterling plays moral arbiter with the applause line “You ain’t gotta study up on right and wrong.”
Hicks learned golf for a reason: entrée into the world where deals get made and pockets get filled. By contrast, Old Joe carries a golf club for protection. Hicks’ white partners allow him a minority partner in a radio station, giving them access to government subsidies; he starts a radio show about golf to share his love of the game and all it can provide.
As the wheels of commerce turn, the professional becomes personal and the comfortable uncomfortable. Wilson, along with director Gregg T. Daniel, mesh the gears brilliantly. Scenic design by Sibyl Wickersheimer ensures A Noise Within brings it all home.
Performances of Radio Golf take place at A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, through Nov. 13: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm (dark Thursday, Oct. 27). Tickets are $25-72 and are available here.