As much as I enjoyed the film In the Heights, it paints a picture of gentrification that is romanticized and one-dimensional, a truth I was reminded of the night I saw the Pure Life Theatre production of Radio Golf.
Radio Golf centers on the character of Harmond Wilks, a real estate developer who not only wants to breathe new life into a Pittsburgh neighborhood known as the Hill, but also aspires to become the city’s first Black mayor. The only thing perhaps standing in Wilks’ way is a historic home, a shrine to cultural heritage and community.
The play, which opens Pure Life Theatre’s season, is the final installment of Wilson’s 20th Century Cycle a 10-part series that chronicles African American life from the 1900s to the 1990s. It is also Wilson’s final work. Notably, Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are also part of this compilation, both of which are probably better-known titles than Radio Golf since they were also given the Hollywood treatment.
Wilson’s work is dense, layered with language and nuance, a slow burn, requiring a soft-pedal approach to be effective. Fortunately, the Pure Life Theatre production achieves just that.
Director Jamal Farrar’s deference to Wilson’s work prompts a process of introspection that awakens his audience. Reflective performances from a capable cast, led by an indefatigable Mike Harrison, dutifully follow Farrar’s lead. This ensemble, like soothsayers, string their unsuspecting disciples along towards a precarious end.
Conversations around classism, cultural assimilation, and critical race theory feel timely, while design elements are quintessential 90s. In retrospect, maybe Bill Clinton’s One America did not do as much for reconciliation as some New Democrats might have us believe. And to that end, Wilks’ character arc is even more consequential.
As part of a whole, Radio Golf inspires further discovery, which is why curiosity-seekers like me will be happy that Pure Life Theatre is bookending this season with Fences. Moreover, it is refreshing to see an all-Black cast and predominantly Black design team telling stories on their own terms.
Let us pray this same type of collaborative spirit permeates our community and inspires what is produced not just this season, but for years to come.
Radio Golf runs through June 27 at Pure Life Theatre. For more information visit https://www.purelifetheatre.com/.
For a complete listing of Triangle theater events, visit our Calendar Page.