“Radio Golf” Brings History to the Fore at Penumbra

Penumbra Theatre, in St. Paul, has for the past couple of years wended its way out of sequence through August Wilson’s monumental 20th Century Cycle of 10 plays about African-American life (one for each decade of the last century), alighting first in the 1930s and now in the 1990s with “Radio Golf.” In this final play, Civil Rights have been won (at least on paper), some blacks have power (though it may be contingent on white support), and at last it appears that the past can be forgotten and all the privileges of the present be taken—but at what cost?

The play gets off to a wobbly, almost pedestrian start as the business of setting the scene takes precedence over Wilson’s famously poetic speechmaking. We’re in a real estate office that’s doubling as the campaign headquarters of a up-and-coming black businessman who can’t fathom why a lot of hard, honest work and good connections shouldn’t shoot a black man right to the top of city politics just as well as anyone.

But the past quickly catches up to him, in the form of a couple neighborhood guys who’ve been left out of the rise of the black middle class and come to him for help, affording Wilson some of his strongest, harshest characterizations of the new racial divides. How much has really changed? And when opportunity knocks, is it worth answering the door if others will be left in the cold?

As the most recent play in the cycle, this one offers the most immediate impact—particularly so in the midst of contemporary declarations of a “post-racial’ society. I suspect Wilson would have (quite) a few words to say about that.