St. Louis Black Rep Company’s Fireside Chat #2: August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” (opens February 13-March 9, 2008, at Grandel Theatre) When does urban renewal turn into bulldozing the past?

The Black Rep Company’s website describes August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” like this:

The final installment in Wilson’s cycle of ten plays that examines the African-American experience in 20th century America, and the tenth to be produced by The Black Rep. The epic tale centers on Harmond Wilks, an Ivy League-educated lawyer who plans to declare his candidacy to be Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. Along with his determined wife, their goal is to redevelop the “blighted” area of Pittsburgh’s Hill District using federal money. Standing in his way is an old mansion with a significant past–the home of Aunt Esther, the hereditary folk priestess whose tale goes back to when the first shipload of enslaved Africans landed in Virginia in 1619.

Last night at The Contemporary Art Museum (3750 Washington Ave.), Black Rep Founder and Producing Director Ron Himes and “Radio Golf” director Lorna Littleway discussed August Wilson’s epic dramatization of the African American experience and heritage in the 20th century. This was the second of the Black Rep’s Fireside chats whose purpose is “to provide a aunique directorial perspective and background to upcoming productions at the Black Rep.” We enjoyed a wine and cheese reception along with free entry into The Contemporary’s Gally which remained open for the friends of The Black Rep for the evening.

The conversation between Ron Himes and Lorna Littleway went something like this. No recording devices, folks, just my little fingeres taking notes, so these are approximations only, attempting to offer you the gist of the exchange. Perhaps someday we’ll be fortunate enough to offer podcasts of the Black Rep’s Fireside Chats. —JGR


Ron: Does redevelopment mean bulldozing our heritage?
Lorna: There hasn’t been much emphasis on saving African American heritage. Often there’s a conflict of heritage vs. commerce. [Gives an example from NYC.] “Do you really think this one person is going to hold up this multi-million dollar project?” Heritage has become heritage tourism. There’s the rise of the businessman polititian.

Ron: Differences in style among the three August Wilson plays you’ve directed?
Lorna: In “Radio Golf” there are lenghty monologues within which there are internal shifts of character not brought about by something other characters have said.

Ron: What does this cycle spanning the 20th century say about the evolution of the African American community in that century?
Lorna: African Americans work and view things in terms of what’s good for the community, the common good rather than the individualism emphasis of American mainstream culture…which tends to lead to putting business first, profits first.

Ron: How has it been working on three plays with scenic and costume designers?
Lorna: All three plays I directed were set on The Hill in Pittsburgh. Over the course of working on them, we developed a familiarity which led to a basic understanding. You’re not going to be seeing patio furniture on the porch, for instance…just a kitchen chair brought out.

Ron: Talk about history through fashion.
Lorna: “We got style.” Style becomes a source of statement. Style becomes an unabashed way to say externally, “You can’t take this away from us.”
[costume designer in audience]: The dress shows the three elements of time within the characters. It’s a challenge how to display that.

In all August Wilson’s plays there are the three elements of time: what was; what is, and what can be.

[From audience]: Did Wilson lead or follow the experience of African Americans?
Lorna: Artists interpret and inspire. Because there was such minimal exposure to African American playwrights before Wilson, he became a leader in documenting and clarifying. His achievement is to link history with daily lives.

Ron: How did he write for his female characters?
Lorna: The answer can be found in: 1) What characters does he give voice to? 2) Where does he found his story? Women come in around the subject of art. Wilson is replicating what’s happening in society.

Ron: What is the significance for community preservation that Wilson rarely found it necessary to put a white character on stage that affected the destiny of the community?
Lorna: African Americans are a community within American society. There’s not a reciprocal understanding. [In the larger society] there’s a wanting to forget about the past. That makes it difficult to come together. [Story of Lower Manhattan…which used to be an African American community. No trace now. That’s happening in Harlem now, too, through re-development.] There are 165,000 fewer African Americans living in the five burroughs of New York City. There’s a difference between voluntary migration vs. pushed out migration. When Starbucks, Dalton, and Wholefoods replaces the neighborhood stores a feeling of homogeneity sets in and neighborhood feeling is lost. Where do those being replaced go to?

Ron and Lorna There’s a migration theme in African American history moving from South to North. This may have been a mistake, because in giving up the land and the means to feed one’s family, culture and history also became lost eventually. After integration, small business declined in the African American neighborhoods in the Northern cities. There’s a search for famliy that had been dispersed. There’s forced migration in search of supposed economic opportunities, that often turn out not to be there. If it’s a mistake to migrate, it’s based on the decision to embrace what the future had to offer.

Ron: Half of Wilson’s cycle is during segregation. Half is post-segregation. Progress?
Lorna: If people don’t have input into the proposed solution, it’s not going to work for that group, because there’s not going to be a depth of comittment there. The question is: Where is the leadership coming from?

Ron: What do you think the future significance of August Wilson’s plays will be fore African American actors, directors, and other theatre workers?
Lorna: Wilson’s plays offer a clear career path, just like Shakespeare’s do.

Ron: How would you describe the strong Wilsonian actor?
Lorna: Facility with poetic language. Knowledge of history, indiginous African American music, painters such as Romare Bearden…besides this keen familiarity of background, a physical capacity of strong vocal training and physical stamina.

[Discussion of August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. Wilson always put a major historical event from that decade at the core of the play. Lloyd Richards, head of Yale Drama School, helped Wilson develop early plays wtih continual refinement and revision. Richards’ support crucial in providing institutions that supported Wilson’s work.]

[from audience]: Where does the title “Radio Golf” come from?
Ron: Golf is a theme in the play. Golf reflects the stature of African Americans in the play. Golf as a new status symbol that shows 1990s style of living and relaxation that became available to African Americans.

I spoke to Lorna and Ron after their chat. I recalled a VISTA volunteer in the Decatur, Illinois in the late 1970s who formed a golf club with inner city children on the idea that learning golf…rules, ettiquette, deportment and so on would help them move more easily in the world at large. Ron told me about a program with a similar concept called “First Tee.” (click here to read) Bill Amery, long gone to the other side would be so pleased!

Note: For a discussion of August Wilson’s legacy in Slate Magazine, click here.

Wikipedia: The Pittsburgh Cycle

Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” also often referred to as his “Century Cycle,” consists of ten plays—nine of which are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Ballybeg. The plays are each set in a different decade and aim to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century. In decade order, the plays are:

* 1900s – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
* 1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
* 1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) – set in Chicago
* 1930s – The Piano Lesson (1989) – Pulitzer Prize
* 1940s – Seven Guitars (1995)
* 1950s – Fences (1985) – Pulitzer Prize
* 1960s – Two Trains Running (1990)
* 1970s – Jitney (1983)
* 1980s – King Hedley II (2001)
* 1990s – Radio Golf (2005)

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