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Huntington Presents Pulitzer Winner Topdog/Underdog

Explores what it means to be an African American man

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It’s been more than 15 years since Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog debuted at the Public Theater in New York, but the production, which starred Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle as two African American brothers memorably named Lincoln and Booth, made an indelible impression on Peter Dubois.

“I was pretty blown away by its impact,” says Dubois, now artistic director of the Huntington Theatre Company. “It’s a play about what it means to be brothers and what it means to be brothers who are sort of on their own in the world. But once you get inside of it, there is an incredibly rich set of political and theatrical layers to the piece.”

The play transferred to Broadway in 2002, with Mos Def replacing Cheadle, and was hailed by critics for its theatrical virtuosity. Ben Brantley, in a New York Times review, called Topdog/Underdog a “thrilling comic drama” that “vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed.” The play went on to win numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first female African American playwright to win the drama Pulitzer.

Dubois has long wanted to stage a Huntington revival of the play, and he felt that now was the right time. “It says so much about America through the lens of these two characters,” he says. “When we were programming this season, we didn’t know what the political environment would be, but we knew what was at stake and I felt the piece would resonate no matter what direction the country was taking.” The play is now on stage at the BU Theatre, directed by Tony Award–winning actor Billy Porter (Kinky Boots) and running through April 9.

Topdog/Underdog is a darkly comic theatrical exploration of what it means to be an African American man at this moment in time. Parks’ characters, long ago abandoned by their parents, must deal with their troubled upbringing and their equally complicated relationship with each other. Lincoln, the older of the brothers, is working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, and his brother, an aspiring grifter whose wife has kicked him out, has moved in with him. The two are deeply dependent one on the other, bound by both love and resentment, as they grapple with racism and poverty. Parks has described the play as being chiefly about “what it means to be family and, in the biggest sense, the family of man, what it means to be connected with somebody else.”

Matthew Harris and Tyron Mitchell Henderson perform on stage as brothers with a complicated relationship in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Topdog/Underdog

Harris says Topdog/Underdog is “a story about two brothers trying to help each other win a game that is designed for them to lose.”

What struck Dubois when he first saw the play, and what continues to resonate for him, is the way it addresses the notion of who the world thinks you’re going to be and how you wrestle with those expectations. The play has taken on a new urgency, he says, following the recent tide of shooting deaths of African American men by white police officers and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When it came time to find a director for the production, Dubois says Porter immediately came to mind. He had directed a revival of George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum for the company two years ago, and Dubois felt he was the right person to helm Topdog/Underdog. “Billy really understands this idea that you can take something and make it massively theatrical in a really entertaining way, but also send people home examining some pretty big ideas,” he says.

The two-character play stars Tyrone Mitchell Henderson as Lincoln and Matthew J. Harris as Booth. For Harris, the play is first and foremost a story about “two brothers trying to help each other win a game that is designed for them to lose.” The play “speaks to what happens when you don’t have the opportunities to become the best version of who you can be, or when you aren’t led to believe that those opportunities are even out there” in the first place.

Harris was drawn to the role of Booth because of the range of emotions the character experiences. Love and joy turn on a dime, veering into darker sentiments, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. “It’s fun to play those switches because they are always attached to really strong desires for something good,” he says. “Something better not just for Booth, but for him and Lincoln.”

Dubois expects the play will resonate differently with audience members, based on their own life experience. “No one person is going to have the same reaction to it, and I really love that,” he says. “Audiences are going to be really stimulated by this piece. I think they’ll be excited by it theatrically. It’s an incredibly dynamic piece that’s being reimagined by a new generation of artists who are at the top of their game.”

As for Harris, what does he think audiences will take away from the production? “I hope they will be heartbroken in that positive way that generates more empathy and understanding,” he says.

The Huntington Theatre Company production of Topdog/Underdog runs at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through April 9. Tickets range from $25 to $135 and can be purchased online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the BU Theatre box office. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $30 tickets (ID required) for any production and there’s a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $20 with the promo code MILITARY, and students 25 and under can purchase tickets for $20. Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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