Rapper and occasional film star Mos Def has garnered much of the attention for his Broadway debut in Topdog/Underdog, but the play also marks Suzan-Lori Parks' first trip to the Great White Way. The veteran playwright, whose works include The America Play and the Pulitzer Prize finalist, In the Blood, has been working toward this level of success for 20 years.
"In 1982, I started," said the scribe at a March 5 press preview for the show. "The first play I did in New York was at the Gas Station, Avenue B and Second Street. They didn't even do plays there and I bought the chairs! Five chairs and they had light cues, like lights up and lights down, which was me behind a screen unplugging and plugging in a light. And I've moved up from there," she said, adding "I'm glad it wasn't the other way around!"
Topdog/Underdog, which premiered at the Public Theater in July, is a two-man show about a pair of mismatched brothers, Lincoln and Booth (named for, yes, that Lincoln and that Booth). Lincoln spends his days as a white-face impersonator of the 16th president, while Booth shoplifts suits and expensive champagne. The two strive for a family unity they have never had, but end up battling to death.
Jeffrey Wright, the Tony winner who plays Lincoln, sees that conflict as the audience's connection to the play. "People recognize in it themselves and their siblings. It taps into something familiar and familial in people. It also has a broad theatricality to it that's really accessible, as it goes from naturalism to a vaudevillian mime show in the blink of an eye."
Parks agrees that the family aspects of Topdog/Underdog first capture the audience. "People experience the family, the family wounds and the effort to heal family wounds. It's about two men who are just trying to make a life. People also identify with that. Everybody has a difficult time, one time or another, where they're scraping along, trying to figure 'Where do I fit in?' 'What am I doing?'." "I think all my plays are basically asking the question 'Who are we and what am I doing here?' and we meaning the big we, not just the American people. What are we doing here on this planet and how can we get by, how can we make do?" Parks said.
What proved so captivating at the Public, where the run extended into September, is almost word-for-word what audiences will see at the Ambassador. Parks has done little to change Topdog/Underdog.
"I take my cue from [Topdog director] George Wolfe and the actors too. If they needed something new or something different, I would have done what I could have for them, but they really feel like it worked downtown. We'll just do a little tweaky tweak. Like I heard a line the other day and I went, 'Ugh, can we cut that?' They were 'We like it!' No, we can cut it. Let's cut it!" she said.
Topdog/Underdog, directed by the Public Theatre's artistic director Wolfe, opens April 7 at the Ambassador Theatre. The original run at the Public played July 10 through Sept. 2 with an opening on July 26. Don Cheadle ("Out of Sight,""Traffic") first played Booth, but has been replaced by Def (nee Dante Smith) for the Broadway run.