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‘Topdog/Underdog’ tackles relevant topics

Family, slavery among subjects addressed in Playground 630 show

Tony McCarroll, left, and Danny Reese star in the Playground 630 production Topdog/Underdog.
Thom Hofrichter

Thom Hofrichter

Whatzup Features Writer

Published April 19, 2023

Editor’s Note: This production has been postponed by Playground 630

‘People like their historical s— in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming,” says a line from Topdog/Underdog.

Topdog/Underdog is about history — the history of our country and the history of a family. 

The play being put on by Playground 630 at Purdue University Fort Wayne’s Kettler Hall is a tale about two Black men, the history of two brothers, who had a challenging upbringing that included a father who named them Booth and Lincoln because he thought it was a funny joke. So, while they have a family history, their names also tie them to the greater narrative of America: slavery, civil war, and the legacy of all Americans, regardless of whether state governments try to whitewash it and make discussion of it in our history classes illegal.

highly acclaimed play

In many ways, this is one of the most difficult Director’s Notes I’ve ever had to write. Suzan-Lori Parks is a writer of enormous talent and the first Black woman to win the MacArthur prize, also known as the genius grant. 

Her 2002 play, Topdog/Underdog, was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it’s incredibly difficult to encapsulate a plot. I think a review from Entertainment Weekly put it best, “Demandingly smart, dark, and resonant, Park’s intense examination of who’s up/who’s down, her fascination with questions of black/white, older brother/younger brother, freedom/slavery, mythical past/reality present, is given sharp form.” 

And I would add, viciously funny.

finding play to fit actors’ needs

Honestly, I never would have had the hubris to take this play on if it were not for the two remarkable actors who are playing Booth and Lincoln. 

Tony McCarroll and Danny Reese came to me last summer and asked if I knew a play they could do. Both work at Parkview Mirro Center, a job which makes it almost impossible to do theater because of their schedules. 

So, they were wondering if I knew of a play for two Black men that we could work on slowly as their schedules permitted. I thought of Topdog/Underdog almost immediately.

It is a play I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival shortly after it had its premiere in New York. I was drawn into its brilliance, but I also felt as though I only got a fraction of what was in the play. 

The great thing about directing a play is you get to hear it out loud some 30 or 40 times while you are rehearsing it. And this was a play I wanted to hear over and over to try to examine exactly what is in it. I have not been disappointed by this experience.

It’s a remarkable piece of work, and I hope it finds an audience in Fort Wayne, because it is the kind of serious, thought-provoking theater that speaks to our souls. 

I’m proud to have worked on this production, and I look forward to audiences wrestling with the ideas in this masterpiece the same way I have.


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