“I just want to be in the room.” That dream of inclusion, which motivates Roosevelt Hicks, is at the heart of Radio Golf by August Wilson. And in this production at Ensemble Theatre, many of the right notes are struck.
Hicks is the business partner of Hammond Wilks and they are on the verge of sealing a deal to gentrify a section of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, an African-American community that Wilson has explored in many of his plays spanning the 20th century. Wilks has his eyes on running for mayor in the 1998 election, and his high-achieving wife Mame is on board for that ride.
But during the span of the play, two other characters wander into the realty office and throw a monkey wrench into the works. One is Sterling, a neighborhood handyman who, despite his sketchy employment history, seems to have a firm grasp on the relationship between business and ethics. And the other is Elder Joseph Barlow, or “Old Joe” as he’s known in the hood, whose family used to own (or still does?) a house smack-dab in the center of the proposed new development.
As always, Wilson’s words are often mesmerizing as he spins out the history of these characters in dialogue that draws sharp characters. This is particularly true in the case of Hicks, who has recently partnered with a rich white mover and shaker, giving Hicks access, in his mind, to the levers of power. He’s finally “in the room” with the decision makers. Or so he thinks.
As Hicks, Leilani Barrett makes the most of this young black man on the make, practicing his golf swing in the office as he dreams of riches and influence. The stage comes alive whenever he is present. And the same can be said for Rodney Freeman, since the persona of Old Joe drops right into Freeman’s exceptional acting wheelhouse. Squinting slyly and using his cane to punctuate his lines, Freeman’s Old Joe maneuvers Wilks into viewing the takeover of the Barlow property from a different angle.
In the challenging role of Sterling, Darryl Tatum is not quite as adept at navigating the twists and turns of Darryl’s quicksilver anger, which often then dissolves into an appealing optimism. But he has some telling moments, particularly in his interactions with Wilks.
The only performance that feels a bit off-kilter is Kristi Little’s take on Mame, since this PR pro doesn’t exhibit the polish and edge that one would need in order to succeed in that field.
Director Terrence Spivey once again shows he knows how to bring resonant performances out of a talented cast. And that leads to a staging of Radio Golf that, while not perfect, is thoroughly involving from start to finish.
Through February 26 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.