‘Radio Golf,’ at Everyman Theatre tackles the struggle between progress and gentrification

Jamil A.C. Mangan as Harmond Wilks/Teresa Castracane Photography

“You get to be mayor, is you gonna be mayor of the black folks or the white folks,” Sterling Johnson,  a resident of Pittsburgh’s majority-Black Hill District asks Harmond Wilks, the main character in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf,” which runs at Everyman Theatre through November 17.

In Blackness and politics you have to choose sides: are you with us or are you against us? Everyone in “Radio Golf”—the last of Wilson’s 10-play The American Century Cycle—seems to know this except for Wilks.

“He is battling morality,” says actor Jamil A.C. Mangan, who portrays Wilks in Everyman Theatre’s production of the play. “He is a real estate developer that comes from a family who have…made and done well for themselves and are very affluent black family and so he sort of grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

It’s the late 90’s and middle-class Wilks wants to redevelop the Hill District and thinks gentrification is the way forward. He also wants to be the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh, and thinks that by transforming the community for the better, he can improve his hopes of getting into office. He wants to do the right thing, it seems, but things get more complicated when he tries to make his vision a reality. It’s a reality lots of politicians must struggle with: is all money good money? Is there a way to balance corporate funds with good intentions?

“He wants to bring the Starbucks, Whole Foods, and what have you, but he’s battling with the fact that he still wants to try and preserve the community and the heritage that was there, you know before the development comes,” Mangan explains. 

On one hand, there’s his fellow Black-and-bougie companions, his wife Mame (Resident Company Member Dawn Ursusla) and his friend and business partner Roosevelt Hicks (Jason B. McIntosh). On the other, there are the poor, Black people of the Hill District who have seen it all and side eye Wilks’ pie-in-the-sky dreams, like Johnson (played by Anton Floyd) and Elder Joseph Barlow, also known as Old Joe (Charles Dumas).

“He is approached by other members of the community — other characters like Old Joe and Sterling —  who are the indegenous, who are the original inhabitants of that community that are saying ‘look, don’t kick us out. We don’t mind that you are here, but see us. Recognize us.’”

As Black Baltimore well knows, nothing is free and the process of bringing outside forces into a community of color can come with all types of baggage. The ramifications of the bargain you make when you gentrify are as true in Wilson’s Hill District as they are in Baltimore City. Here, we watch the Cherry Hill area nervously, knowing how close it is to Kevin Plank’s planned Port Covington. In “Radio Golf”, a piece of property that is scheduled to be torn down represents the kind of change actually coming to the community.

Wilson famously set the plays in this series in working class Pittsburgh, but director Carl Cofield says that the back and forth pull that Willks feels applies here, too. 

“I think one of the geniuses, one of the many geniuses of August Wilson is the existential questions that face the black community but basically affect all of us,” says director Carl Cofield. 

“That is a major sort of tenant in the work and I think it’s going to resonate profoundly with people in Baltimore. August did set this in the Hill District, but that could very well be Baltimore today which is super exciting because it adds to the urgency of why we’re doing the work, you know, talking about gentrification, And what are the collateral damages that gentrification has?”

Radio Golf runs until November 17 at Everyman Theatre (315 W. Fayette St.).