Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 August 2005

Radio Golf

Last evening I saw the final installment of what everyone is calling August Wilson's "ten-play cycle." I'm not sure I know quite what that means, but I suppose it's as good an expression as any to describe what Wilson tried to do (and, I think, succeeded in doing.) Mr. Wilson decided many years ago to write ten plays: one play for each decade of the Twentieth century. Each play is about the experience of Black Americans in the United States, and all but the first of the plays is set in Pittsburgh. I'm not sure I remember all of the plays' titles, but I know I've seen Jitney, King Hedley II and Gem of the Ocean. The other plays are Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and I can't really remember the other ones. The thing is, the plays aren't all good... or at least not all as good as one another. Some of the plays were written in the 1970s, when Wilson was a very young playwright, unsure of his voice, and obsessed too much with personal melodramas and not enough with epic Black-American struggles.

Radio Golf (now at the Mark Taper Forum) is the last play in the cycle in more ways than one. It is the last play he has written and it is the play that covers the final decade in the cycle: the 1990s. Having seen three of the shows already, and unabashedly loved two of them (finding Gem of the Ocean powerful and rather unparalleled, King Hedley II beautiful, sweeping and Greek in its sense of tragedy), I was disappointed in this final chapter of Wilson's saga. In some ways I wish it would have tied more things together, and yet, I wish he would have done less summing-up and more re-invention. The play's purpose seems to be saying that Black Americans need to pay attention to their history--that all Americans need to pay attention to their history. But it's an old message... one better accomplished in Wilson's plays about those times and the other side of the show: the political side is old and stale. The politics of 1997 are no longer interesting and consumerism and elitism is not an interesting or an epic topic, to my mind. The show lacks a purpose, really. It feels like an earlier, less important work for Wilson, as though its only reason for being were to close off the ten-play cycle and allow Wilson to move on. I can't imagine the show being much of a success. It's essentially a situation comedy, really, more than it is anything else, and could have been written by any number of playwrights, Black or White.