Monday, October 13, 2008

This Land Ain't YOUR Land, This Land Is MY Land

Between subprime mortgages, rampant foreclosures and a financial meltdown, this has not been a great year for real estate.  Many people have been forced from their homes; others are discovering that the mortgage they're struggling to make payments on is now worth more than the actual house.  This is hardly what Ronald Reagan once called "Morning in America."

On stage and screen, real estate deals gone sour continue to drive America's narrative.  After losing its lease on Sutter Street to the Academy of Art University's plans to build a gymnasium for its students, San Francisco's 27-year-old Lorraine Hansberry Theater -- like many foreclosed families -- is temporarily homeless.  In a curious turn of events, the Lorraine Hansberry Theater had hoped to co-presenting the West Coast premiere of August Wilson's Radio Golf with Theatreworks, but was eventually forced to drop out of the collaboration and concentrate on its search for a new home.

Two fascinating things stand out about Wilson's final play.   This is another one of those dramas whose second act is so much stronger than its first act that an audience might well wonder how the experience could become quite so schizophrenic.  Initially produced in 1997, it now seems to have grown in relevance following the dot.com bust and this year's terrifying vacillations in financial markets.   Director Harry J. Elam, Jr. has even titled his program notes "Radio Golf in the Age of Obama."

It's a valid hook, especially since the protagonist of Radio Golf (Harmond Wilks) is a young, intelligent and successful black realtor who is hoping to become the Mayor of Pittsburgh.   When challenged by one of the wizened old coots in the neighborhood as to whether he thinks the white establishment is really going to allow his campaign to succeed, he bravely and idealistically replies:
"This is 1997.  Things have changed.  This is America.  This is the land of opportunity.  I can be mayor.  I can be anything I want."
Aldo Billingslea in August Wilson's Radio Golf (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While Wilks struggles to make his real estate dream come true (a combination residential/commercial development anchored by a Whole Foods Market, a Starbucks, and a Barnes & Noble), neighborhood forces keep conspiring against him.  As part of their plans to push the development through, Wilks and his partner, Roosevelt Hicks, have been betting on receiving a federal grant once the area is labeled as suffering from "urban blight." Unfortunately, the money end of politics (and sloppy government planning) cause the entire scheme to unravel.

It seems that when the City of Pittsburgh sold a seemingly abandoned house to Wilks' development company,  it neglected to notify the owner of its intention to sell. This technicality eventually forces a moral crisis for Wilks, making him painfully aware of his partner's willingness to ignore the rule of law for the sake of expediency.

Sticking to one's morals can cost a politician dearly and, in this case, Wilks ends up compromising his relationships with his partner, his wife, his business, and his soul -- all under the watchful eyes of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who stares down at him from a poster on the wall of his office.  As the moral conflict develops strength in Act II, Wilks must also decide what kind of man he wants to be:  A proud black man who acknowledges and honors his past? Or a self-loathing Negro who will endure any kind of humiliation in order to get a bigger piece of the pie and be assimilated into the power structure owned and operated by his former oppressors.

As Harmond, Aldo Billingslea cuts a fiercely masculine and athletic figure onstage, which makes for a nice transition in the consciousness raising he subsequently experiences.  Anthony J. Haney works hard as Roosevelt Hicks, noticeably contemptuous of "lesser niggers" like the Elder Joseph Barlow (Charles Branklyn) and Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callendar as an uneducated black man who has become a jack-of-all-trades, thus managing to survive and keep working without a resume or any kind of professional certification).

As Mame Wilks, C. Kelly Wright clearly delineates the yearning to advance her own political career separate and apart from that of her husband.  At the center of the drama, however, is the role of urban renewal in dividing communities and stripping them of their identity for the sake of the future and the pursuit of greater greed.  As one character notes:
"Some people say you got to tear it down to fix it. Some people say you got to build it up to fix it.  Some people say they don't know how to fix it. Some people say they don't want to be bothered with fixing it.  You mix them all in a pot and stir it up and you got America.  That's what makes this country great."
Apply those sentiments to the financial crisis rocking America's economy this month and Wilson's words seem remarkably prescient. The big difference is that Barack Obama has a very clear picture of who he is.  Harmond Wilks is a confused Buppie who is just starting to wake up to reality.

* * * * * * * *

Real estate deals gone bad are part of the mess that is Bunnyland, which will be screened as part of SFIndie's DocFest later this month. Centered in and around Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (home to Dollywood), Brett Hanover's uneven documentary shows what can go wrong when business deals are decided on a handshake or a smile.  So what if a senile old coot promises to sell you "that mountain over there" and shake on it.  So what if a business partner changes the terms of your agreement because he gets greedy?  

As a small business owner, I've always stuck to the principle that "A contract is like a condom -- it's there to protect both parties." Unfortunately, some of the local yokels don't quite understand that.

Bunnyland features an interesting cast of characters.  At the center of the movie is Johnny Tesar, who claims to be the last Indian left on the "Trail of Tears."  Johnny is one of those narcissists who has spent most of his life believing the fables he relates about himself with ever-growing certitude.  

Given half a chance, he'll gladly show you the crystals he has collected which he claims show evidence that an ancient civilization once existed near Pigeon Forge in which elephants roamed freely and prehistoric men worshiped bears.  The only problem is that some of Johnny's tales don't hold a lot of water.  Even when confronted with hard truths, he is quick to dismiss them as someone else's fantasy.

Two conflicts have dominated Johnny's life in recent years:  One involves the mysterious slaughter of nearly 75 rabbits after Johnny severed ties with the owner of Bunnyland and moved to another town. Then there is the fatal blaze which not only destroyed a log cabin Johnny had built (using questionable construction techniques), but the woman who was sleeping inside it as well.

As you'll note in the trailer below, intelligence seems to be a rare commodity in Pigeon Forge (maybe Dolly Parton took it all with her when she left town).  While Mr. Tesar has some extremely loyal friends -- who will swear they have witnessed  the "orbs" that Johnny claims are dead spirits who like to sit on the couch and watch television with him --  many of this man's claims strain the audience's belief system to the breaking point.

In an urban environment, Johnny might be consigned to a mental ward on a 5150 as an eccentric who is a danger to himself and to others.  In Pigeon Forge, well, hey, he's got his horse, his shotgun, and his devoted orbs to keep him warm.

No comments: