Notes for all five sessions consolidated on substack. Click here:
Very first impression: my wife and I saw this on stage in Baltimore in 2006. It was still “fresh off the press,” being performed across the country, not yet ready for prime time on Broadway. Reading it now, at the end of the Century Cycle, I realize that I missed a lot of the plot action when I saw it performed in 2006. It seemed at the time to have no context, no unifying structure. But this time, it all makes sense.
This study guide has good background material for all of Wilson’s works.
Characters and their relationships in previous plays:
Harmon Wilks, grandson to Caesar Wilks 100 years before in Gem of the Ocean.
Old Joe Barlow, son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary from Gem of the Ocean. (Recall Black Mary and Caesar Wilks were half siblings).
Sterling, older and wiser but still Sterling, from Two Trains Running.
Mame Wilks, wife of Harmon.
Roosevelt Hicks, college buddies with Harmon at Cornell.
1839 Wylie Street, home of Aunt Ester, willed to Black Mary, left to Old Joe Barlow, her son with Citizen Barlow, purchased by Harmon Wilks for delinquent taxes, sold to Bedford Hills Redevelopment run by Roosevelt Hicks and Harmon Wilks.
There is a lot to be said about the reappearance of the Barlow and Wilks families from the first decade of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean. I saw Caesar Wilks previously as a type of “godfather” figure and that was borne out in his and his son’s paying of the taxes on Aunt Ester’s house for all those years. We saw the chemistry between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary at the end of Gem. Happy to see that worked out. When Mame says “I tied myself so close to you that there is no me. I don’t know if i can carry this any further,” I immediately thought about Rose in Fences, who mentions a similar submergence of the wife’s personality into that of the husband’s. I personally think Mame and Harmon will make it, but the path immediately ahead will be rocky.
It appears that Roosevelt gets his way in tearing down Aunt Ester’s house. But the story may not end there. I suspect the Roosevelt/Harmon relationship, business-wise and socially, will not survive this dramatic breech of trust.
The play treads all so gingerly on the subject of gentrification, which is bound to accompany redevelopment of the Hill district due to its close proximity to the center of Pittsburgh.
Radio Golf. What’s in a name? Roosevelt Hicks has a minority interest in a new urban radio station, WBTZ, in partnership with Bernie Smith, a white businessman Harmon does not trust. Hicks is the “blackface’ that enables the purchase of a radio station at a deep discount with an FCC Minority Tax Certificate. Hicks is the front man, in charge of day-to-day operations, even though he has no radio experience. And because he loves golf, he produces a radio program where he offers golf tips.
It’s also a symbolic representation of an attempt by Wilson, in sharp departure to the other nine plays in the cycle, to portray the black middle class: Harmond the real estate developer/attorney running for mayor, Roosevelt (his humble origins are betrayed by his first name) the banker/real estate developer, and Mame, the loving wife/government bureaucrat. It’s the Cosby/Huxtable family all over again except we never see the children. But they are there.
From the Urban Dictionary:
Huxtable: A reference to an “upscale” or “Upper Middle Class” black person or family. NOT derogatory when used by white people, but can be derogatory if used by blacks, about blacks. Derived from the Huxtables on the Cosby Show. Also used to define “poser” black families, trying to act “white”
On the subject of golf, Roosevelt’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 1 where he reflects on his first experience hitting a golf ball was both stirring and moving. Poetic, in fact. But the same monologue also betrays Roosevelt’s deep-seated sense of insecurity, if not inferiority with regard to race.
And who is this play’s Wilson Warrior? Which character shows the greatest transformation? Which one “finds his song?” Harmond Wilks has my vote. While Sterling and Old Joe have the best lines in the play, the most poetic monologues, Wilks goes the greatest distance in his discovery of his roots and his changing outlook to reflect that discovery. Radio Golf extends the Wilsonian vision to the black middle class and gives them as a class their own separate hero. I think that is a good thing.
Finally, this play is a huge advertisement for genealogy. AncestryDNA should not only be thrilled, they should be tripping over themselves to underwrite local productions of the #AmericanCenturyCycle.
Here is the NYTimes review of the 2007 Broadway production of Radio Golf.
Events of the 1990’s
Radio Golf is dedicated to Benjamin Mordecai, former managing director at Yale Rep, co-director of all ten of August Wilson’s plays. Like Wilson, Mordecai died at age 60, just a few month’s before Wilson’s passing.
The play has the smallest ensemble cast of any play in the cycle with five characters. Sterling has appeared before in Two Trains Running. Harmond Wilks is the grandson of Caesar Wilks, who we remember from Gem of the Ocean, and Old Joe Barlow is the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, also of Gem of the Ocean. Radio Golf is an intergenerational family play at the end of the Wilson Cycle.
Roosevelt Hicks is Harmond’s business partner and was his college roommate at Cornell. Roosevelt speaks in a loose Negro dialect most of the time (compare his language to Harmond’s more standard English), suggesting he does not come from an educated family background like Harmond obviously does. He places high value on superficial things, like golfing, and business cards, and falls prey to get rich schemes like being the minority partner in the radio station purchase and front man for Bernie Smith, a rich white business guy. He says that without his new business cards, people on the golf course will think he is the caddie. Roosevelt is an insecure man.
Harmond want to put his campaign office in the predominantly black Hill District, while his wife wants him to locate in the more affluent white section of Shadyside. Harmond explains, “You don’t understand. Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight (italics mine).” Harmond understands politics at its essence, while his wife is operating on the superficial transactional level.
Sterling went to high school with Harmond and his brother, Raymond. But Sterling has had a troubled life, in and out of jail and trouble. He seeks employment, yet does not have the required union certifications. His remark to Harmond and Roosevelt that they should call him back for work before the phone company cuts off his phone does not inspire confidence.
In a conversation between Roosevelt and Harmond and the end of Scene 2, Roosevelt notices something and bolts to the door, saying “Hey! Hey! Get off my car!” Could it be a cat? Could it have been the cat resurrected at the end of King Hedley II? Could it be the spirit of Aunt Ester?
Moving ahead to the end, once Harmond establishes his family connection to Old Joe Barlow and to the property at 1839 Wylie Ave. (which was illegally acquired, Harmond discovers, by the property development company), he attempts to do the right thing by redrawing the plans to preserve Aunt Ester’s house intact. At the play’s end, Roosevelt turns on Harmond, and we don’t know what is about to happen to the house, whether it will be demolished or not. But Harmond has made the right and correct decision. He echoes Ma Rainey in his description of Roosevelt’s betrayal, “After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?” Roosevelt says twice he is not anybody’s whore, which indicates that he is in fact somebody’s whore.
Harmond paints warrior markings on his face, like Sterling did earlier, then exits the office. Harmond is redeemed and the spirit of Aunt Ester lives!
Here are some review notes:
Huntington Theatre Company production of Radio Golf, 2006.
Joe Mott, who Old Joe mentions in Scene 4 reminiscing about his WWII battle experiences, is also the name of the black bar owner/gambler in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. August Wilson maybe is establishing a connection to Eugene O’Neill through one of O’Neill’s characters.
Hail! Hail! The Gangs All Here! was popular among troops in WW1 and WW2 though it had earlier antecedents. More recently, it was featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slauterhouse-Five. I think the Vonnegut may have been the connection Wilson was making. There is a bit of irony here. Songs from other plays are steeped in blues and spirituals, yet here are two Cornell graduates singing this very Irish/Celtic show tune.
Blue Skies, an Irving Berlin song from the musical Betsy (1926) was later made popular by Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald. It was also one of the first songs featured in a talking movie, sung by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.
Sam Green, a grocer mentioned in the play, in real life was definitely someone Wilson would have wanted us to know about. Sam Green, enslaved in Maryland, was arrested and convicted in 1857 for having in his possession a copy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After much protest from the abolitionist community, Green was freed in 1862 under the condition that he leave Maryland. The family emigrated to Canada where young Sam Green Jr. had previously escaped to. After Emancipation, Green returned with his family to Baltimore and became involved with running the Centenary Biblical Institute, which later became Morgan State University.
I am struck by the repetition and frequency of shifting loyalties in Radio Golf. Let’s try to tease one or two of them out.
The big sort of climax in the play is the breakup of the friendship between Harmond Wilks, the ensemble’s central character, and his old college roommate and current business partner, Roosevelt Hicks. Harmond Wilks is from old money, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the old folks say. His father ran the real estate business before him and his grandfather before his father. In fact, we know his grandfather, Cesar Wilks, from the first play in the series, Gem of the Ocean. Wilks’ business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, on the other hand is so nouveau riche, that he believes 1) that if he doesn’t have a current business card on the golf course the other players will think he is the caddie, and 2) if the current deal goes south he will lose his house and his wife’s car. They even vary with regard to golf, with Harmond thinking the golf course is a place where one can learn rules for success, while Roosevelt considers success on the golf course as a pretense for showing off his manhood. It is frankly a wonder they have remained connected for as long as they have, with such fundamental differences in outlook and priorities.
Let’s work backwards for better detail resolution.
There is a big fallout at the play’s end. Harmond seeks to redesign a land development deal to honor a family relationship that he has just learned he has. Rather than tear down a house that once belonged to Aunt Ester, a friend of his grandfather’s, and that currently belongs to Aunt Ester’s successor’s son, Old Joe, who, it turns out, is also Harmond’s second cousin, he seeks a way to build around the old house, preserving a piece of the original neighborhood. Once Roosevelt learns of the “new” deal, he bolts and develops an alternate plan to buy Harmond out of his share of the project, using money from a new found friend who is already using him as the black face of a media project in order to qualify for minority set-aside funding for both the media project and ultimately, for the real estate deal. When Harmond confronts Roosevelt about the ethics of the business arrangement, Roosevelt responds that’s just the way deals are cut and he won’t be deprived of his opportunity to “hang out” with the big boys of business. Not only will Roosevelt turn his back on a long standing friendship with Harmond, he will also turn his back on his own community.
For his part, Harmond is too willing to back away from “the plan” once he learns that family is involved in it, because that’s where he places his values. We applaud Harmond for creating disappointment that contributes to his sense of family and community. But we criticize Roosevelt for his disloyalty when it is based on the profit motive or personal achievement, no matter how temporary. Harmond’s wife, Mame, is none too happy about his new decisions, and she blames her job loss on Harmond’s political face loss in the whole situation. Yet she promises to stand with her husband, through thick and thin.
Radio Golf, thus, can serve as Wilson’s morality play, much as King Hedley served as Wilson’s Greek tragedy. Through it, Wilson is pointing us in a moral and ethical direction for our own future behavior. He is saying, quietly and gently, don’t be like Roosevelt, be like Harmond.
I hope in our discussion tomorrow to address the Radio part of the play, the use and utility of media, and the Golf part of the play, how games and sports serve as a surrogate for our lives.
p.s. The Radio Golf Play game.
How many times in Radio Golf do you feel like you are in a different August Wilson play?
Of course, every time Elder Barlow speaks you feel like you are in Gem of the Ocean. He even sounds like Aunt Ester, doesn’t he?
“But you got to have the right quarter. American is a giant slot machine. You walk up and put in your coin and it spits it back at you. You look aat your coin. You think maybe it’s a Canadian quarter. It’s the only coin you got. If this coin ain’t no good then you out of luck. You look at it and sure enough it’s an American quarter. But it don’t spend for you.” Act 1 Scene 2
And every time Sterling speaks you are transported to Two Trains Running, expecting to hear from Risa and Hambone: “I’ve been waiting for this office to open a long time. I do construction work. I’m looking for a job.” Act 1 Scene 2
Except here, Sterling sounds like Floyd Barton’s seven ways speech in Seven Guitars: “I just wanted to know what it was like to have some money. Seem like everybody else had some. I said let me get some. So I robbed that bank.” In Act 1 Scene 1, Harmond says, in Act 1 Scene 1 “You mix them all up in a pot and stir it up and you got America. That’s what makes this country great.” Doesn’t that sound like something Toledo would say in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?
But when he says, “You teach the kids how to play golf and they have all the rules they need to win at life. You ever play golf?” he sounds like the anti-Troy Maxsom in Fences who hates sports for his son because it didn’t work out for him.
Old Joe says “You strut like you a rooster. You the King of the Barnyard. You strut through the barnyard during the day. At night you roost high up on the rafters. But when you get to the bottom of it a rooster ain’t nothing but a chicken.” Straight from Canewwell’s monologue in Seven Guitars.
Mame has lines at the end that sound just like something similar from Rose in Fences. “You jumped but I’m falling too. I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks. That’s all the governor sees. . . . I tied myself so tight to you that there is no me.”Early in Act 1, Harmond says, “See those marks. It’s all hand tooled. That’s the only way you get that pattern detail like that. That tin ceiling’s worth some money.” Maybe a bit like the description of the piano in The Piano Lesson?
Radio Golf – post-class thoughts
Harmond as Job, Harmond as Wilson warrior.
Jacob and Esau, Harmond and Raymond, Harmond and Roosevelt.
Did Sterling steal the golf clubs, then resell them to Harmond?
Roosevelt reduces Old Joe’s life to “bullets” on a police record.
Aunt Ester’s house, architecture and carpentry as archive.
Military veterans in the Cycle.
The above list details a few of the ideas we discussed in our final group discussion of the session.
The Job story. At the end of Radio Golf, Roosevelt has used Bernie Smith’s money to buy Harmond out. Harmond has lost his stake in the project and his voice in its management. He has lost a long term friendship with Roosevelt in a broken business relationship. Curiously reminiscent of language in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Harmond, in obvious disappointment, tells Roosevelt,
“Enter Roosevelt Hicks.
The shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile.
How much he pay for something like that?
After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?
A hundred dollars?
Three hundred dollars?
Or are you one of them high-class whores?
Harmond has apparently lost his shot at becoming mayor of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Mame, has correspondingly lost her spot on the shortlist to become the Governor’s press representative. Mame, in a Rose Maxsom moment, says,
“You jumped but I’m falling too.
I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks.
That’s all the governor sees.
All any of the other board members see.
What all our friends see.
I tied myself so tight to you
that there is no me.
I don’t know if I can carry this any further.
We are left to wonder if Harmond’s marriage is salvageable. Harmond loses all, just like Job in the Bible. At the end of the play, outside the text but in the director’s notes, we see Harmond painting lines of his face, like Sterling did earlier when he tells Roosevelt, “I learned that from Cochise. We on the battlefield now,” though Harmond reveals to us in his final monologue with Roosevelt that he was always on the battlefield. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the old Negro spiritual:
I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord,
and I promised Him that I
would serve Him ’til I die;
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.
We believe that it all works out for Harmond because that’s what Wilson wants us to believe. Harmond retains his family real estate business, effectively putting Roosevelt out of the office at the end and tearing down the Tiger Woods poster (too bad on that one, given Tiger’s recent greatest comeback of all time). Just as it all works out for Old Testament Job. After enduring all of God’s trials and tribulations, Job is a better man. Riley Temple, in his classic work, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed, compares Harmond Wilks to Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a sort of reborn Adam with a quickening spirit.
The Jacob and Esau story. I mentioned in our discussion without giving it full thought at the time the story of Jacob and Esau, then backed down when I wasn’t able to carefully articulate the subtle nuances of the comparison. I still am not, but i think it is worth mentioning and memorializing. In the play we have allusions to the relationship between the twin brothers, Harmond and Raymond, with Raymond bolting from the father’s plan early to attend an HBCU followed by his decision to enlist, which led to his unfortunate and untimely demise as a soldier in Vietnam. Harmond, on the other hand, stayed with his father’s plan for him and almost made it to the mayor’s office, which could have been followed by the Senate, and perhaps even the White House. We will never know, though we can venture to speculate that Harmond Wilks might have been better equipped to occupy the White House than Obama was. Back to the discussion. In a way of thinking, Raymond sold his birthright to pursue an independent track, leaving the “promise” to Harmond. Similarly, Harmond and Roosevelt extend the Jacob and Esau story, except this time, it is Roosevelt selling his birthright for immediate, temporary gain, again, leaving the “spiritual” and “metaphysical” promise of saving the community to Harmond.
Who stole the golf clubs? Did anyone else find it curious that the golf clubs went missing from Harmond’s trunk, only to be purchased by Sterling, who in turn sold the the clubs back to Harmond, later accusing Harmond of “receiving” stolen property (with an implied threat of future blackmailing)? Did anyone else connect the dots and conclude that it is a high probability that Sterling actually stole the golf clubs in the first place? Why else would he return Harmond’s payment that was to cover his own payment to the fence (the alleged intermediary who actually stole the clubs, and an allusion to yet another August Wilson play) in the first place? We play Sterling cheap at our own peril. Sterling is a messenger from the past (Two Trains Running) just as Elder Joe Barlow is a messenger from the past (Gem of the Ocean), both present to serve as midwives for Harmond’s spiritual birth as a Wilson Warrior.
Life as a record. Roosevelt, after consulting with the local police department, is only too happy to attempt to smear Old Joe’s character by citing points on his police rap sheet, thereby somehow harming Old Joe’s claim to the property at 1839 Wylie (Ad hominen fallacy). In Act 2 Scene 3, Roosevelt reads the list, to which Harmond replies, “All that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean anything. i don’t care if he’s a criminal. We can’t tear down his house.” Roosevelt again shows us a vile side of his character.
Aunt Ester’s house as the archives. We don’t know what Harmond studied in school, but he has a definite appreciation for interior design. In Act 2 Scene 2 he describes the interior of Aunt Ester’s house:
“It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation. I couldn’t believe it. It has beveled glass on every floor. There’s a huge stained-glass window leading up to the landing. And the staircase is made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade. You don’t see that too often. . . .You should feel the woodwrok. if you run your hand slow over some of the wood you can make out these carvings. There’s faces. Lines making letters. And old language. And there’s this smell in the air . . . .The air in the house smells sweet like a new day.”
One senses, through Harmond’s discovery and descriptions, that the lives of generations of families are carved into those walls, recorded in those carpentry fixtures, much like a primitive archive, much like Berniece’s piano in The Piano Lesson. Early in the history of record keeping, records and data were carved into walls, as displayed in this John White Alexander mural at the Library of Congress. The series of murals is entitled, “The Evolution of the Book.”
Let’s take a brief look at the military veterans among August Wilson’s characters, Solly Two Kings (Civil War) in Gem, Floyd Schoolboy Barton (World War 2) in Seven Guitars, Gabriel Maxsom (World War 2) in Fences, Doub (Korean War) and Darnell “Youngblood” Williams (Vietnam War) in Jitney, and Elder Joseph Barlow (World War 2) in Radio Golf. Today, on Memorial Day weekend, my attention is drawn to Elder Joseph Barlow, Old Joe, and specifically, his monologue near the end of Act One where he describes his participation in a World War II battle. In his story, Joe Mott, the flag bearer, gets shot in battle, and Joe Barlow picks the flag up and carries it throughout the battle and until the day of his discharge. You have to read it and I won’t spoil it for you. But here’s the deal. Joe Mott was also the name of a character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the name shows up here in this setting. With August Wilson, there are no coincidences.
Let me begin by saying this is the second time I’ve seen Radio Golf on the stage. The first time was nearly fifteen years ago, also in Baltimore, playing the regional theaters pre-Broadway.
Also, I am reading a book in preparation for the Spring 2020 session to sharpen my ability to look at a play analytically. David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. So that informs somewhat my review.
Finally, my GPS was on the blink and I missed the downtown exit and was five minutes late arriving at Everyman Theater, so I caught the first scene of the first act on a closed circuit screen, but got the rest of it on stage.
Altogether, it was a marvelous and amazing performance. Both Harmon (portrayed by Jamil Mangan) and Roosevelt (performed by Jason McIntosh) were compelling, convincing, and magnificent. In fact, by the end of the play I really disliked Roosevelt, emotionally, in a way I hadn’t from the mere reading and discussion of the play. He got to me. That must mean he really nailed his role. Charles Dumas as Elder Joe Barlow was delightful, personable, and charming and worked his way into everyone’s heart, including my own. Anton Floyd simply killed it as Sterling Johnson, the hard luck orphan and ex-convict from Two Trains Running, having become quite the wise man over the the 30 years since his first appearance in the Cycle. I thought Mame Wilks was a bit weak, in fact, the weakest link in the ensemble, but I find myself questioning whether it was the acting, or perhaps Wilson wrote her role as not quite as compelling as, say, Risa, or Rose, or Berneatha, or many of Wilson’s other female character-types. When she says at the end, “I’m still standing here,” it rings a bit hollow and you wonder if their relationship will last or if, perhaps, she might run off with Roosevelt! At the same time, you wonder if Mame is right, and if Roosevelt is right, and if, perhaps, Harmon has taken this family thing too far. Then you remember Ceasar Wilks and Black Mary in Gem of the Ocean and you know that Harmon really is trying to do the right thing.
The stage setting was stunning and definitely added to the flow of the dramatic action. Bravo Zulu to Everyman Theater!
On substance, the staged production really accentuated the deterioration of the relationship between Harmon and Roosevelt. I could feel the tension between them growing, even while the “frat-boy” aspects of their college days managed to manifest itself in the plot development. I identified very strongly with Harmon, and I found myself almost despising Roosevelt for a number of reasons. And I also found myself anticipating action throughout, and I think that comes less from reading the play repeatedly and more from the actual acting and the practice of forwarding in the plat. The sound effects were also telling, especially the sound of the bulldozers at the end of the play.