In this modern age of alternative facts and fibbing former presidents, a Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Topdog/Underdog arrives right on time. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ tale of two thirty-something brothers named Lincoln and Booth (named, clearly, for our 16th president and his assassinator) explores the dangers of dishonesty and the sweeping under-the-rug of evidence of things not seen.
Jeffrey Wright and Yasiin Bey portrayed the roles in its original Broadway staging. In director Kenny Leon’s 2022 version, he brilliantly casts Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the loving, warring siblings.
Updated with tunes by Kendrick Lamar (such as “The Heart Part 5”), while retaining some of its original music (Marvin Gaye’s prophetic “If I Should Die Tonight”), Topdog/Underdog shines for a new generation, reuniting on the post-pandemic Great White Way.
Leon, renowned for revivals of A Raisin in the Sun, A Soldier’s Play and Fences as well as originals like American Son and Smart People, spoke with EBONY about the chemistry between his leading men and his collaboration with Suzan-Lori Parks, as well as why "love's in need of love today."
EBONY: The New York Times recently cited Topdog/Underdog as one of the greatest plays of the past 25 years. What’d you think of that?
Kenny Leon: I think the opinions of The New York Times are separate from the opinion that I respect most—the new generation of people coming into that theater. If I stand outside watching people going into the Golden Theatre, I see a good mix, [including] younger people than I see at most Broadway shows. That tells me the play is resonating with people’s lives today. And it has nothing to do with 25 years ago; it has to do with right now.
I think for the last two years, we’ve been disconnected from each other. This is the perfect play to reconnect us and remind us of the need for the love of humanity. Stevie Wonder has that song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” That’s what I think about when I think of this play. To look at it through two Black men’s eyes, what better way to tell something about humanity in America at this time? I can’t think of a better, more thorough play. It paints the beautiful, the ugly, the hard and the difficult. Everything about being a human being is contained in that play.
You cast two incredible stars in the lead roles.
Corey and Yahya are great artists. I told them, “We could rehearse this for another year and still not get to the bottom of it,” [we’d] still have more stuff. I have a relationship with this cast that’s great. At two a.m., we talk on the phone. I think it’s a spiritual play. I think it’s the most perfect play I’ve ever read or been associated with. I did not see the production 20 years ago. But whatever you think about it, the play gives you something different: If you came to be serious, you'll think “Oh, I’m laughing—why am I laughing?” Or if you came to laugh, you'll think, “Oh, it’s serious.” If you came not expecting music, you'll think “Oh, when I walk into the theater, there’s music” or “Oh, wow, what’s that onstage? That’s the American flag, isn’t it?” Yeah, drenched in gold.
It's a lot to take in.
I said I wanted this production to be authentic to the world of those two Black men onstage. You come into the theater, you hear the music up loud. It’s not background music. It’s intentional. You hear Marvin Gaye and you hear Kendrick Lamar; it’s cross-generational. And it’s a fable [that says] we are a part of humanity and people must love on us. Suzan-Lori Parks wrote a hell of a play and I haven’t witnessed more plays better. I think she belongs in that army with August Wilson, Shakespeare, [George Bernard] Shaw, [Henrik] Ibsen. She’s one of the greats.
Take us through how Suzan-Lori Parks assisted in the production this time around.
Suzan-Lori Parks was there from day one. We had never worked together and we found a natural, wonderful way to be with each other. As a director, I’m always trying to understand the intention of the writer. I’ve always held the relationship between the director and the writer as being the most sacred artistic relationship. We gave each other the grace and the space to do what we do. We came from a place of love. I instructed the cast, “Let’s find the love and the joy and the buoyancy until we can’t.” So that’s how it moves. Booth is a dreamer and wants romance in his life. Lincoln has found a way to deal with life, to get through life in America.[Suzan-Lori Parks] was there for the first two or three days. Then I said, “It would probably be a great idea if you went away so that we can now figure out what this is. And then come back in two weeks.” She came back and gave notes, and we kept working together. That relationship was a beautiful relationship, one of the best relationships I’ve had. This was one of those moments where it was a perfect collaboration.
How did you approach modernizing the play from 20 years ago?
I read older plays as if they’re new plays. I was like, “How does this speak to me now?” I felt like it was a fable. I don’t think this really happened. I had the symbolic meaning of where we have gotten in our country. In terms of the conception, I want this really to be about the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Parks, in the play as stage direction, says it is here and now. To me, it’s not 1990. It’s now. If it’s now, I need to subliminally feel what’s outside of their room. That’s in the music. I try to tell the young people, I’m into your music, I’m into now. That’s in the clothes they had on. When they boosted those clothes, they have on tennis shoes. That’s wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. I directed a play with what we had gone through the last two or three years with Covid, so it finds its way in, in subtle ways. In the look of it, the clothes of it, the sound of it, even the pace in which we put the show through when we speak. All that’s now. None of that’s in the past.
A friend said Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen riff off each other like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Who do you think is Miles and who’s Coltrane?
I don’t know about Miles and Coltrane, but I do think the guys riff off each other. That’s a beautiful thing about this play. It can work with the energy and the rhythm of [former performers] Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def or Don [Cheadle], but also in the present day, the energy of now. I wanted guys who are actually the age of the characters, who are in their 30s right now. And I wanted guys who were different from each other. Yahya is a really physical actor. He can feel things from his fingertips to his toenails. It’s in his body. Corey is an emotional journey guy. But they’re a perfect complement to each other.
Lincoln is, from the beginning, depressed! This guy has not been his best self for seven years. For seven years, he’s not been with a woman. For seven years, he’s been working this part-time job. He’s depressed and doing a good job of hiding it. Because Corey works from inside to outside, he’s perfect for that role. Yahya is perfect for a younger brother who’s been protected by the older brother. He hasn’t let him go out and learn the streets. He has protected him. Because he’s protected him, that guy has the capacity to love and dream like nobody else.
Of those two actors, one went to Juilliard, and one went to Yale. They both are trained actors who are very successful in the film and television world, who just love being in the room working on this. And they totally trust the words that Suzan-Lori Parks put down on paper. Their chemistry’s great and it’s what makes the play work.
Is there something specific about the times we’re living in that made you want to stage Topdog/Underdog in 2022?
I think because we’ve been disconnected from each other because of Covid, or because of what the country has gone through in the past eight years and where we find ourselves, this is the most important play to do at this time. Because of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths. The whole community energy needs to look at this. What you see on stage, that’s the truth.
I know it’s kind of metaphorical, but throughout the play, these guys share photos from their photo album of when they tried to make a family in America, and it’s a little difficult. But in the end, they’re holding each other. And then I have the last photo. It’s a flash that goes off, with the background of the skeletons coming through the wall. For me, that’s not them taking that picture. I asked myself, "Who’s taking that picture?" And I say that’s God taking a picture of humanity. He said, “This is where y’all at. Whatcha’ll gon’ do? You gon’ keep lying to each other? You gon’ keep forgetting about half the people? Whatcha’ll gon’ do?” It’s a call to all of us to love on each other. Love is in need of love. It’s definitely a modern-day Cain and Abel story.