ST. PETERSBURG — American Stage Theatre Company tees up the new year with its eighth installment of famed playwright August Wilson’s Century Cycle, “Radio Golf.”
The play is set in the late 1990s and follows Ivy League-educated Harmond Wilks as he sets out—along with his wife Mame and best friend Roosevelt—to redevelop Pittsburgh’s Hill District, while also setting his sights on becoming the city’s first African-American mayor. Complications ensue when Wilkes comes to realize that his plan to reinvigorate his childhood home may be robbing the district of its rich history.
Wilson’s Century Cycle is a series of 10 plays that chronicles African-American life through the century, each play set in a different decade. All of the works (with the exception of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) are set in Pittsburgh and fittingly, directing this production is Mark Clayton Southers, who hails from the Steel City.
Southers, who has directed many of Wilson’s plays, believes many people can relate to “Radio Golf” not only because it takes place in 1997 and deals with today’s issues like gentrification and modern day politics, but because the themes are universal.
“Honor and commitment, sense of family are some of the strong themes,” said Southers, founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. “Taking command of your future, taking command of your journey. I think a lot of the themes are relevant. The struggle of the common man, honoring our past, forging ahead for our future—that’s happened all through our existence.”
The veteran cast features ranney (Sterling), Chrystal Bates (Mame), Kim Sullivan (Roosevelt), Tony nominee Anthony Chisolm (Elder Joseph Barlow) and Alan Bomar Jones (Harmond Wilks). Southers has worked with all of the cast members in the past, and has done two pervious stints in St. Pete, directing American Stage productions of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson,” both Century Cycle plays.
But Southers claimed that although it may help if actors have done August Wilson plays in the past, any good performer can make it work and bring the playwright’s words to life.
“It’s part of the journey to find those characters,” he affirmed. “I think it’s about making the commitment, not to just study the work and learn your lines, but the commitment to tune in with the other actors and form an ensemble. I think everybody has their own journey. There’s a lot of good actors who’ve never done August Wilson, but once they start doing it they have an appreciation for it. It is a language that sings.”
A published poet and accomplished playwright himself, Southers has many works to his credit including “Hoodwinked,” “Legal Alien,” “Angry Black Man Poetry” and the award-winning “Nine Days in the Sun.” Though he concedes that Wilson is likely his biggest idol, Southers has his own distinctive voice in his written work.
“I try to write stuff that is much different from August Wilson,” he explained. “I try to write plays that bring the races together, Americans together—Irish American, Polish, Jewish. I try to write plays that have multiethnic casts because I think theater is a good way to heal our fractured relations, a bridge to relationships between Americans. I have a series of plays called the Culture Clash series where I try to introduce two different American cultures together onstage through dialogue.”
Though he has garnered accolades for his writing and directing, Southers was visited by the theater muse relatively late in life. He recalls the moment clearly:
“I was a photographer by trade, and the repertory theater asked me to videotape one of the plays, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ So I’m sitting in the back of the theater videotaping the play and all of sudden the character of Levee starts cussing God out and it got my attention! I was transported out of the theater. It was realistic to me; the actor did such a great job!”
It piqued his curiosity enough for Southers to start reading for plays and eventually getting cast in them, at 30 years old.
“That’s how I got my start. It was an August Wilson play that sparked my interest!” Southers said. “I did a lot of plays by Rob Penny, who was a close friend of August Wilson’s, so I admired his plays a lot because he taught in his plays about African history and African-American history, and we didn’t get a lot of that in school. I learned a lot of my history by performing his plays in Pittsburgh.”
Southers attended a playwriting class conducted by Wilson at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in South Africa and also attended the Edward Albee Theatre Festival in Valdez, Alaska, where he did seated readings with Wilson of all of Wilson’s plays. Southers describe the legendary playwright as very down to earth.
“He didn’t try to place himself on a pedestal or anything, he was a common man,” Southers remembered. “He was a little soft spoken and he was interested in what you were doing. He took the time to have realistic conversations with people, it wasn’t rushed. He really was a true poet and playwright, where he crafted his work, he took the proper time in his life, and he didn’t have a crazy, busy schedule where he was jumping around. He was always great to be around because he had a calming presence about himself. He was like an old soul.”
First performed in 2005, “Radio Golf” was Wilson’s final work before his death later that same year. It was nominated for the 2007 Tony Award for “Best Play.” Southers believe it is in the upper echelon of the Century Cycle works.
“I think it’s a play that’s very relevant,” he attested. “It’s the type of play that gives you an idea of what happens behind the scenes at big business, and how deals are made and how relationships can either be solidified or fall apart. And it gives people a good feeling about following your heart, staying true to how you feel, without letting people sway you from what’s right and what’s wrong about making decisions.”
“Radio Golf” runs at American Stage through Feb. 22. For tickets and info, contact American Stage at (727) 823-PLAY or visit www.americanstage.org.