After 20 years, Suzan-Lori Parks Pulitzer Prize-winning work Topdog/Underdog is making its way back to Broadway. With opening night set for Thursday, the long-awaited revival is set to star two powerhouse actors, namely Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins, who are determined to bring the drama, the danger, and most importantly, the truth to their respective characters while shining a light on a sector of people whose experiences don’t often get the chance to take center stage.
For his part, Hawkins—The Tragedy of Macbeth star and Tony-nominated actor—will portray Lincoln, the older brother to Watchmen and Emmy-winning actor Mateen’s character, Booth. A darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity, Topdog/Underdog tells the story of the two brothers whose names—given to them as a joke—foretell a lifetime of sibling rivalry and resentment. Haunted by their past, the brothers are forced to confront the shattering reality of their future.
Playing brothers with a tumultuous relationship is a task both actors admit isn’t for the faint of heart, but at the same time, it’s a privilege to wade through the storytelling waters present in a body of work that has just as much relevance today as it did in its initial opening back in 2002. For Mateen specifically, who’s making his Broadway debut with this role, it’s an opportunity to show up for those who see themselves in these characters in a very intentional way.
“There’s something that someone’s gonna get every single night I believe that they’ll never forget,” the Ambulance star explained to The Root. “This is a show that you come into and it’s rewarding, it’s funny, it’s fun. But there’s also a purpose underneath it. I like to remind myself that I have a purpose.”
Added Hawkins, “You’re doing it for the Lincolns and Booths in the audience. You’re doing it for them. There is a certain Broadway audience that likes to come and be comfortable in the theater. This is not a comfortable play, if you’re comfortable then you’re either on the wrong business or you’re in the wrong theater. You watching the wrong play.”
“This is Topdog/Underdog, it pulls the rug from under you,” he continued. “It is three-card monte, it really is. It’s always moving, you’re never really sure who’s on top or what’s going on. The motives, everything is always shifting. And you want the audience to feel that. But at the end of the day, you want them to be seen and to be heard. Black, white, whatever it is. You want them to be seen and heard.”
The Root: How much of yourselves do you see or are you both putting in your respective roles?
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Well, it’s interesting because I gravitated towards this character about 15 years ago because of the familiarity and closeness with this character. I felt like he talked like either myself or my family members—like people I knew. It was a Black, well-written, outspoken character who had a big heart, who was witty, who cursed. He just lived in everything large. And I related to that. But this time coming around, I really wanted to challenge myself to see what I could add to that, what type of maturity I could add to that character. We’re not very much alike, but what I am able to do is use my own life lessons and apply that to Booth and sort of put it through Booth’s perspective.
So, I know what it is to hurt, I know what it is to love, and I know what it is to have dreams and aspirations. I know what it is to rely on your siblings for love and affection and camaraderie. I know what it is to be on down times. I think I relate to him in terms of having an intelligence about the world but Booth is a completely different character. But I get to play and that’s really the gift is that I get to step into those shoes because if I’m not like Booth, then I definitely know people who are like Booth and who are like Lincoln. So it’s a gift to be able to step into those shoes and put their experiences on the stage and invite thousands and thousands of people to come out and witness their lives because in their everyday lives, the Booths and the Lincolns often go unheard.
TR: What’s been the biggest difference you both have found when it comes to prepping for a stage play versus a project for TV/film?
Corey Hawkins: This ain’t for the faint of heart (laughs). This is hard, what we do, and it’s interesting. Lincoln has a line in the play where he says, “Every day I gotta go out there and I gotta make it work. I make it look easy, but it’s hard.” And it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge that I think we’re both up to because we’re both trained actors and we both want to continue to grow ourselves. But this is no vanity project. This is no thing you sign onto just to check the box. There’s something about getting on the boards every single night. There’s a feeling, there’s something that you get back from whatever happens between the stage and that audience. That’s where that magic is that you don’t get in film, [that] you don’t get in television. And it’s different every, single night.
YAMII: And it’s dangerous every night. It’s dangerous every single night. And not in terms of the “what-ifs,”—it’s just a live act. It’s a high-wire, tightrope-walking, act every night. And sometimes, we feel like experts and we can do whatever we want to do on that wire. We can make it look dangerous though we’re still safe. But the element of danger is always there. And it’s that weird sort of adrenaline rush for myself. In terms of preparation, I think in anything that we do. I know Corey enough as an artist to say that we’re always looking for truth. We’re always looking for truth in whatever form it may be. So I think we all put a certain work ethic toward the work but this is demanding in a much different type of way than film and television is. And [it’s] rewarding.
TR: Why do you think the disconnect still exists between Black folks and how we engage with theater and what can we do to change that?
CH: I think it has to do with the material, I think it has to do with the plays, the playwrights. There are a lot of “celebrated, decorated” white playwrights and there have been for years, you know they call it the “Great White Way.” There’s a reason audience members don’t give ourselves permission to go see Broadway. It’s partly because we don’t see ourselves up there. We don’t see people who look like us, sound like us, or live and breathe like us. And so I think there’s something to be said that when we do get those opportunities, when we do have celebrated playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks, like August Wilson, or Brandon Jacob Jenkins. The list does go on.
They’re there, it’s just a matter of getting their plays produced and it’s a matter of supporting them. I think when we do support, we support hard. So really, it’s just a matter of...it’s not necessarily about trying to make Broadway see our worth. We know our value, we know what we bring. And they know it too. I think that’s a dangerous thing and it’s an exciting thing and I just think we need more of it.
TR: Yahya, in 2020 both you and Suzan-Lori Parks signed a petition put forth by We See You White American Theater which espoused demands for cultural competency, better working conditions, artistic and curatorial practices, and the prioritization of BIPOC press, among other things. Have you felt or seen any of those changes or are you hopeful that they will get implemented?
YAMII: I’m always hopeful for more progress. Actually, we were talking with our director Kenny Leon, who’s a Broadway, theater legend. He’s been very proactive in making sure that we address some of those issues, representation, and resources. And as it pertains to some of the namings of the theaters, making sure that there’s African-American representation on the boards and sitting in the seats and making decisions. I think there’s definitely progress, any time people come together to try to move things in the right direction. I’m all for it. I think there’s more that can be done, hopefully through the work that we’ll be doing in Topdog/Underdog, we’ll be making some noise and raising awareness in terms of how important this work is and how important representation for Black voices is in the Broadway space and the theater space at large. Hopefully, we’re doing our part. I have seen some progress, but there’s always more to be made.
Topdog/Underdog is available to see on Broadway now. For information on how to get tickets, head to topdogunderdog.com.