Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 6 October, 2008

The figure of the sage and (possibly) seeress Aunt Ester runs through several of the late August Wilson’s cycle of “decades” plays, each set in his native Pittsburgh in a different decade of the 20th century. She appears onstage in the penultimate play to be written but the first in terms of chronological action, Gem Of The Ocean, staged at the Tricycle in 2006. Now, in the final play (in each sense) and Paulette Randall’s fifth Wilson production at the venue, her house and her descendants inform the 1997-set action.
Harmond Wilks (played by Danny Sapani, who as always seems physically to embody his character’s defining traits) is an emblem of the aspirational, and successful, black American middle class: he combines business acumen with community-mindedness in his scheme to redevelop the former black district of “the Hill”, and is even on the brink of announcing his candidacy for mayor. When he discovers a cracked old man repainting the last remaining house on the development site, Harmond’s attempts to dislodge him are converted when he uncovers both family links and, crucially, illegality in his firm’s acquisition of the property. His dilemma is that sticking to the moral principles he has publicised as a potential candidate will cost him both his political and business careers, and moreover put the development in the hands of a predatory white magnate.
Harmond’s hard-nosed partner Roosevelt (played by Roger Griffiths) is a little simplistic: he lets his material aspirations overrule his business ethics and what one might call “racial radar”. (It is rare to hear the word “nigger” uttered with a degree of contempt by a contemporary black character, as Roosevelt does; in contrast, another character accuses him of being a “Negro”, a wannabe-whitey.) Harmond’s wife Mame is virtually a Token Woman in the play, leaving Julie Saunders little to do. The real action is triangular, between Harmond, the exuberant Joseph Marcell as “Old Joe”, the rightful owner of the house, and Sterling Johnson. Sterling is not quite an idiot and not quite an oracle, but in Ray Shell’s excellent performance he is the incarnation of one aspect of what Wilson described as black folk’s journey through the decades of the play “from property to people”, as Sapani’s Harmond symbolises the other side of the coin. And it is a coin of value.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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