Two more to see beginning with the stunning Huntington Theatre production of a play that gets to the heart of racism in these United States: Suzan-Lori Parks’s revelatory Pulitzer Prize-winning “TOPDOG/UNDERDOG.” Directed by Tony, Grammy, and Drama Desk Award-winner Billy Porter (KINKY BOOTS, THE COLORED MUSEUM) will leave you in shock as it builds to its inevitable explosive conclusion. We are left sorting through the toxic fallout of slavery’s corrosive impact like nuclear waste from an atom bomb, poisoning generation after generation in half lives.
“Topdog/Underdog” tells the tale of two brothers sharing a claustrophobic bomb shelter of a flat with no running water, seemingly suspended in
a darkened, apocalyptic landscape of spiky ruins beyond. The brothers are named Lincoln and Booth, a bitter joke made by their father who thought it was funny, and who eventually abandoned them after their mother had first. Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) the elder is a master at three-card monte who spends his days impersonating the assassinated president in white face at a shooting gallery in a cheap arcade. Booth (Matthew J. Harris) is a failed grifter who cannot master the game his brother knows only too well. These two manage Parks’s dense rhythmic dialogue like sleek musicians at a funeral–theirs. Henderson plays it loose-limbed and mercurial, slyly holding a secret over the head of his more volatile, vulnerable younger brother played by Harris with restless, heartbreaking desperation.
The two play out the tropes of the African American legacy: the game has been and continues to be rigged by “the man,” and the boys remain disconnected from their identities, their deep tribal familial roots–are they even brothers? The recurrent themes of slavery and the assassination of their history, which they continually re-absorb and re-enact in a horrible roundelay of self-hatred and anger, are what Parks and director Billy Porter force us to confront. The only way out of this dead end game of three card monte–which they have learned from the masters and perpetuate– is to step outside of it and see it. This is the virtue of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG; more relevant now than ever before, it pulls back the curtain on a painful mechanism so we can find a way out of a losing game. Through April 9 at Huntington’s BU Theatre.
Then head over to SpeakEasy Stage for the New England premiere of GRAND CONCOURSE by actress/playwright Heidi Schreck. This surprisingly absorbing play grabs hold of you like an intimate page turner in short episodic scenes. It all unfolds in a Bronx soup kitchen helmed by a HS basketball star turned disgruntled nun named Shelley who can make soup with the best of them and doesn’t suffer fools. Melinda Lopez brings a remarkable balance of grit, integrity, and vulnerability to this woman who has shed her habit but not quite her faith as she struggles to find meaning serving those in need.
Those in need include herself and everyone around her: Emma (Ally Dawson) a college drop out who wanders in one day and volunteers in the hopes that it will somehow ground her. There she meets the warm and funny Oscar (Alejandro Simoes) a former Dominican dental student now night watchman/handyman who is attracted to the confounding Emma; Dawson plays this tricky role with ease, by turns innocent and diabolical. Then there’s “Frog” played by Tom Derrah who’s hilarious and heartbreaking as a brilliant but mentally unstable intellectual, now homeless and writing joke books. Derrah invests the character with a dignity and humanity that belies the funny line readings and wacky attire.
This dazzling ensemble seamlessly clicks into place under Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s
direction–which involves a lot of soup-making and vegetable chopping! Schreck’s transparent dialogue and sleekly crafted scenes make clear the ways in which giving and taking are embedded in each other. Each of these characters is course-correcting mid-journey, and those corrections involve pain and forgiveness. The last scene is a killer and will leave you stunned and questioning, relieved and/or angry. Not sure yet…See it and let me know what you think, but so SEE GRAND CONCOURSE through April 1 at SpeakEasy Stage Company!