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April 7th, 2010 BEN WATERHOUSE | Performance
 

Radio Golf (Portland Playhouse and Baseroots Theatre Company)

August Wilson breaks out the war paint.

     
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LAWRENCE E. STREET
IMAGE: Christina Riccetti

With August Wilson’s final, furious denunciation of the assimilation of black America by white culture, Portland Playhouse scores a coup. Radio Golf, directed by co-founder Brian Weaver and co-produced with Baseroots Theatre Company, is the young company’s strongest production yet, a moving, infuriating enterprise, well acted, directed and designed—but the playwright would surely have hated it. Wilson famously insisted on a black director for the film adaptation of Fences, writing, “I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job.” Weaver is white.

But Wilson died five years ago, and isn’t around to object. Fine. Radio Golf is an ideal play for Portland Playhouse—it suits the company’s emphasis on strong performers and provocative work, and underscores Weaver’s commitment to engaging with the Humboldt neighborhood community. And it couldn’t be more relevant: Harmond Wilks (Lawrence E. Street), a wealthy black real-estate developer, and his partner, Roosevelt Hicks (Bobby Bermea), are set to begin construction on a major redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s historically black Hill District—a condo with a Whole Foods, Starbucks and other totems of white middle-class culture—and launch Wilks’ campaign to be the city’s first black mayor, when they run into trouble in the form of Elder Joseph Barlow (Kevin E. Jones). Barlow, a 79-year-old lunatic-prophet, lives in a house on the development site and isn’t about to let the rich folks tear down his home. Developers reshaping a neighborhood without the consent of its residents? Portland, take note.

Radio Golf is far from the best-written of Wilson’s plays; he fails to find poetry in the language of business or any personality in Wilks’ wife, Mame (Andrea White), the show’s only female character. But literary quibbles fall away the moment Barlow walks in the door of Wilks’ office (built from salvaged architectural parts by Daniel Meeker), bent over, chuckling, mumbling through a never-ending stream-of-consciousness monologue. He’s amusing until he explodes, throwing his suffering at the hands of white racists in the developers’—and our—faces. Also excellent: Victor Mack as a sardonic ex-con; Wilks’ eventual self-destructive epiphany; and Derek Smith and Mita Lupa’s soundtrack of jazz, soul and original music. No doubt about it—Radio Golf is the best show on any stage in town right now.


SEE IT: Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes May 16. $14-$19.
 
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