'Radio Golf' reading at OSF Monday to benefit Penumbra

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will present a reading of famed playwright August Wilson's last play, "Radio Golf," on Monday as a fundraiser for Penumbra, one of the foremost African-American theater companies in the United States.

The reading will begin at 7 p.m. in the OSF's Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland. Reservations are $15 at the box office or by calling 541-482-4331 or visiting www.osfashland.org.

Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minn., gave Wilson his first professional production. More recently it has suffered budget shortfalls, the loss of staff positions and the suspension of its 2012 fall season.

Penumbra Artistic Director Lou Bellamy, who founded the company in 1976, said that last year Penumbra faced a shortfall of $800,000 in a budget of $3 million.

"It's really wonderful what the OSF is doing," Bellamy said in a phone interview. "Aside from the fact that dollars help, it's a major institution recognizing the work and importance of these culturally specific organizations and going out of their way to help ensure their survival.

"Too often these major regionals are placed in a competitive role. They want those audiences themselves. It's a very unselfish and responsible action that Bill (Rauch, OSF artistic director) has taken."

Wilson, who died in 2005, created a series of 10 plays known as "The Pittsburgh Cycle," for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. The plays, each set in a different decade, depict the African-American experience in the 20th century. "Radio Golf" is about the city of Pittsburgh dealing with the prospect of having a black mayor in the 1990s.

The reading is planned in connection with the OSF's Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth commemorates the announcement in Texas on June 19, 1865, of the abolition of slavery two and one-half years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is observed in 42 states.

Contributions may be made at the reading, with checks made out to Penumbra Theatre Company. No cash or credit cards will be accepted.

The reading will be directed by Donya K. Washington. The cast features Rodney Gardiner as Harmon Wilkes, Christina Acosta Robinson as Meme Wilkes, Jerome Preston Bates as Roosevelt Hicks, Ken Robinson as Sterling Johnson, and Terry Bellamy as Elder Joseph Barlow. Bakesta King is providing stage directions.

Bellamy, who guest-directed this year's OSF production of Wilson's "Two Trains Running," says the threat facing Penumbra and other companies is so severe that national foundations and theater networks such as Theatre Communications Group are developing plans to ensure the theaters' survival.

"In that mid-sized niche you almost always lose money when you produce a play," he said. "In a 260-seat house, you can't make back the money. So we said, 'Let's just stop here and see if we're not the only ones who think this is important.' "

Support poured in from all over. Theater buffs sent money. Actors offered to work for free. Bellamy was interviewed by "NBC Nightly News'" Brian Williams. As a result, the theater has re-opened its doors, is nearly debt-free, and is back to producing its usual four main-stage plays a year.

In a statement released by the OSF, Constanza Romero, August Wilson's widow, noted: "August's final play, 'Radio Golf,' was written during the final months of his life. In 2005, before the play was to open in Los Angeles, he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and was forced to face the fact that he could not usher this work to New York, as he had done all the other plays.

"I witnessed the Herculean determination, and the insurmountable courage he had to summon in order to finish the last installment of the American Century Cycle. I consider 'Radio Golf' August's final gift to all of us, and we are all the richer for it."

OSF's Juneteenth Celebration is a free event slated for 1 to 2 p.m. on the OSF's courtyard bricks. The live performance will showcase the lives of pioneering black women whose achievements impacted the world. Organized by company members, Juneteenth was first celebrated 15 years ago as a company event.

Bellamy said the problem Wilson deals with in "Radio Golf" is one of his major themes: Will an African-American in the midst of change embrace his past and the worth of his community?

"It about old versus new values," he said.

That's a natural fit with Penumbra's mission, which is to explore the ways in which the human spirit can be mined in an African-American context.

"That's usually examined in most of America using a Euro template," he said. "We need to see various dimensions."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Share This Story