Saturday, June 16, 2007

"If the blight comes through": Radio Golf on Broadway, for two weeks more

When I wrote about the script of playwright August Wilson's final work, Radio Golf, in January 2006, the most striking passage was the exchange between two black businessmen about the wisdom of allying with a white multi-millionaire to help the latter get minority tax credits when buying a radio station.

Real estate developer Harmond Wilks, a candidate for mayor, is skeptical about the idea, but his friend and business partner, bank VP Roosevelt Hicks, is more positive about Bernie Smith. For Atlantic Yards watchers, Hicks might evoke former State Assemblyman Roger Green and ACORN president Bertha Lewis, prime movers on the AY Community Benefits Agreement, and Smith might recall Forest City Ratner president Bruce Ratner.

Wilks wonders if Hicks is "just the front," but the latter responds, "I get to get in the door... I don't care if somebody else makes some money 'cause of a tax break. I get mine and they get theirs... The window of opportunity is already starting to close."

"If the blight comes through"

When I saw Radio Golf last night on Broadway, the curtain opened on an office with a rendering on the wall, a ten-story apartment building with ground floor retail, to be occupied, as the characters explain, by the icons of upper-middle-class retail: Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. (At right, Wilks and his wife Mame. More photos.)

To get there, though, the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Agency Wilks and Hicks run must get the city to designate certain properties blighted, which as Atlantic Yards watchers have learned since last year, can be an arbitrary designation, at the whims of the powers that be. "If the blight comes through," they say at various times--and when it does, they break into a celebratory dance. (In Brooklyn, the blight issue remains in court.)

Bedford Hills is a prettied-up name for Pittsburgh's African-American Hill District, minutes from downtown, where Wilson (1945-2005) set his one-a-decade cycle of plays. "Radio Golf" is set in the 1990s and, given Wilson's untimely death, seems a bit unfinished--the part, for example, for Mame seems underwritten--and, as the Times suggested, more clearly tags characters as good and evil than in his other plays.

(The Observer's John Heilpern loved it, and took a swipe at the New Yorker's Hilton Als, who didn't.)

Echoes of Kelo

The two professional men are schemers, though one has a conscience, while two scruffier men, hustlers of sorts, are the vox populi, and they get the applause lines. Bedford Hills needs a house owned by Elder Joseph Barlow and, as a another character, Sterling Johnson, observes, "If they got a law that says they can tear down his house, they can make a law to tear down yours."

It echoes the backlash from the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, which spanned the spectrum from libertarians to the NAACP, given that poorer neighborhods of color have often been targets of redevelopment.

"I got common sense," Johnson adds later, making a case for the assets of a poor man versus a golf-playing banker like Hicks.

Making the case for the inexorability of redevelopment and the loss of Barlow's house, Wilks offers a line that echoes Lewis's explanation for signing the housing deal with Forest City Ratner: "You have to face reality." Of course, the Hill--demographically, economically--isn't the twin of Prospect Heights, where Atlantic Yards is aimed, but the resonances remain.

Last chance

Despite its imperfections, Radio Golf is good theater, with a good dose of humor, some riveting theatrical moments and even an entertainingly prescient case for congestion pricing. It didn't win any Tonys, so, according to the official web site, it's closing July 1. (Discounts are available; $42.50 tickets are at BroadwayOffers.com; code RGNFP62.)

The discussion of blight--as well as that of stadiums and their economic value--is hardly exhaustive, since it's a play, not a tract (or blog).

Atlantic Yards supporters might take comfort in the strong hints of inevitability, despite moral outrage, with which the play ends. After all, Hicks asks his (now-former) partner if he thought a judge would let a "raggedy-ass house" get in the way of a multi-million dollar project. 

For those opposing the project, probably the most resonant line goes to Barlow, seen at right refusing money from Wilks: "Big boats turn slow, but they turn nonetheless."

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