The Black Man’s Burden?
by Dax-Devlon Ross
The Black Man’s Burden?
A Review of August Wilson’s Radio Golf
Just five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 a riot exploded in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles that left 34 dead. When Dr. King found out about the riot he was en route to a vacation in Puerto Rico. While his staffers advised him to stay away, the news haunted him and he ultimately chose to cut short his trip and accept an invitation to Los Angeles. When he arrived he was devastated by what he saw and heard. The rage. The bitterness. The despair. Residents shouted him down when he spoke of nonviolence. Others, to his surprise, didn’t even know who he was. All of if caught him off-guard, left him bewildered and distraught. What had he been fighting for? What did it matter that these ghetto residents could vote now? How did that change their material conditions? As one of King’s biographers, James H. Cone, put it, “After Watts, Martin concluded that without economic justice, the right to a job or income, talk about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was nothing but a figment of one’s political imagination.”
Watts was a turning point in Dr. King’s career. He stepped out of the shadow of his own enormously popular image and became, by some accounts, a radical. His decision to move to a Chicago slum and begin the Poor People’s Campaign the following year, and to begin critiquing both the underpinnings of capitalism as well as the injustices of the Vietnam War cost him dearly in the way of white liberal and black moderate support. But for King it was the only road he could take. Once he knew, once the glaze of American optimism had been wiped dry by the blunt force of urban decay, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the fight that would eventually cost him his life.
Fast forward thirty years to the city of Pittsburgh and a similarly blighted black community called the Hill. It is there, inside a storefront office on the walls of which a portrait of Dr. King rests from the opening scene to the closing curtain, that the final installment of August Wilson’s plays on twentieth century black America takes place; there that the push-pull effects of integration, deindustrialization and gentrification work themselves out one last time before the century draws to a close. Radio Golf is billed as a play centering around an upwardly mobile black couple with political aspirations a la Michele and Barack Obama, but really their relationship only provides the art-imitates-life backdrop to a story that is ultimately about the perils of opportunity, the meaning of success, and, most importantly, the quality and character of man’s conscience.
Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix) is a quintessential native son. His father was the city’s most successful black realtor in his day. After graduating from Cornell, Harmond returned to Pittsburgh to run the family business. As the play opens he and his good friend Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) are preparing to break ground on a multi-million dollar apartment/shopping complex with all of the typical yuppie amenities: Starbucks, Whole Foods, Barnes and Noble. In Harmond’s idealistic estimation the project will revitalize his old neighborhood, just as his run for the city’s top office will invigorate Pittsburgh with a renewed spirit of hope. Like the generation of new leaders Harmond Wilks bears striking resemblances to – Cory Booker, Adrian Fenty and Barack Obama, in particular – he wants to change the status quo by meaning what he says and saying what means. But wanting and doing are two separate things. In politics it is all too common for noble aspirations to get lost in the muck of ambition, especially when those around you are singing opportunity’s lullaby. You only get one shot, his wife and campaign manager, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), tells him when she insists he retract certain critical statements from a speech. The most important thing is to get your foot in the door however you can, his buddy Roosevelt maintains when he announces a side deal he’s cut with a white businessman to be the minority face on radio station deal. Even Harmond relies on the “rule of law” to satisfy his own guilty conscience once he discovers that the home his company is tearing down in order to erect the apartment complex belonged to the late Aunt Ester, a recurring symbol in Wilson’s plays who embodies African-American memory reaching back to the beginnings of slavery.
As the play deepens and Harmond befriends two of the community’s long-time inhabitants, Sterling (John Earl Jelks) and Elder Joseph (Anthony Chisholm), it becomes increasingly difficult for him to rely on an ends-justify-the-means rationale. His conscience begins to nag at him. He starts to question the purpose and meaning of his political aspirations. Both Sterling and Elder Joseph remind him of those left behind, those who did not have the access and opportunity to leave. The Hill might be Harmond’s pet project, but it is their home, and they won’t just be easily removed for the sake of gentrification.
For Dr. King, Watts and Chicago illuminated the chasm between the Haves and Have-Nots. Inner city squalor gave King the kind of education that Barack Obama says sparked his own religious conversion a quarter century later. The people they met, the streets they walked—those were the experiences that grounded them. And while Roosevelt Hicks ultimately sees the Hill and its residents as burdens, thorns in his side as he tries to climb the corporate ladder, and Mame Wilks sees the neighborhood as a place to be visited as infrequently as possible, Harmond starts to hear a different call. It is the compassionate cry of the forgotten, and he is challenged to respond, to go beyond himself and the plan that’s been laid out before him by everyone but him in order to discover what he is really about. It is significant, indeed symbolic, that the office wall once adorned by a poster of Tiger Woods and a Wilks for Mayor placard only preserves the portrait of Dr. King when the final curtain comes down. At the outset we are led to consider Dr. King solely as the dreamer who died so that his progeny could share in America’s milk and honey, but as the play unfolds and Harmond’s principles dare him to break with his path – as did King when he chose to devote himself to the poor and disenfranchised – we begin to see and understand that the portrait’s real and lasting meaning is far deeper than the mere “dream” of an integrated society where blacks have the opportunity to be capitalists on equal footing with whites.
An imperfect play that feels dated at certain moments and over written at others, and where the budding husband-wife discord is left unsettlingly unresolved, Radio Golf succeeds in synthesizing and distilling the contemporary dilemma the ambitious, upwardly mobile African-American is faced with. Being successful in mainstream America – having money and prestige – comes at a cost. It could mean betraying or at the very least snubbing the community that nurtured you. It could mean compromising your ideals to the point that you are unrecognizable to yourself. It could mean jeopardizing a happy marriage once husband and wife discover their aims in life aren’t as aligned as they once were. It could mean the end of friendships that you once thought were inviolable. These are the unuttered, unexamined pitfalls of the American dream, snares and snags particularly relevant to the black community where authenticity is so deeply entangled with solidarity, where, at one point we all had nothing but ourselves, and now, quite suddenly it seems, class conflict and intraracial strife, haunt our relationships.
Radio Golf is playing at the Cort Theater in New York