Director Billy Porter on the Resonance of Topdog/Underdog in 2017
Suzan-Lori Parks is perhaps the most influential writer of her generation and an artist of particular importance to director Billy Porter. Just before rehearsals for Topdog/Underdog began, dramaturg Charles Haugland spoke with him about the evolution of his relationship to Parks’ most celebrated play.
Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs & Dramaturgy): What was your first encounter with Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog /Underdog?
Billy Porter (Director): I was doing a residency at The Public Theater under George Wolfe (the original director of Topdog) when they were remounting the play for the Royal Court in London. So I got the opportunity to be in the room, around the play, and around Suzan-Lori Parks.
CH: What aspect of the play did you gravitate towards initially?
BP: The relationship between the two brothers and how fractured it was. The play is about the fracture of family, the separation of family, the systematic breakdown that started with slavery. It captures the psychological effects of slavery that persist for generations and generations and generations. Institutionalized racism is in the DNA of our culture and even in the DNA of ourselves. It takes consciousness to heal that fracture. What is so profound about this play is that the brothers never understand that fracture and therefore never reach the consciousness they need to heal.
CH: You played the character of Booth in a 2004 production of Topdog/Underdog at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh. What was your experience of playing that role?
BP: I remember my mother coming to the production and weeping when I saw her at the end. I was not like Booth at all growing up. I was a good boy, sort of a goody two-shoes. Seeing me play that person onstage freaked her out. For me, because I was not like the character, playing the part was more about proving to myself and to the world at large that I was an actor and I could take on that character. It never occurred to me, until my mother pointed it out, what I was aspiring to in that role.
CH: What is it like to return to this play as a director in 2017?
BP: The play will resonate differently. It is even more urgent now than when I did it in 2004. Portraying the complex psyches of these brothers is even more important because now more than ever we have to come together.
CH: Why do you think it is important for us to encounter these psychological fractures in art?
BP: You can’t heal unless you embrace the truth. No matter how dark it is. I think that’s one of the reasons we are where we are in the country right now. The left thought they won something. They thought the world had changed because slavery is over, because we have marriage equality, and because we had a black president. But taxicabs didn’t stop passing me up on the street after dark just because Obama was president. When you assume that you can sit back and not engage with something because you think it is over — you are forced to confront the truth. You have to get to rock bottom and examine the truth.
CH: You chose to work with costume and scenic designer Clint Ramos again for this production after having worked with him on The Colored Museum. Obviously this play has a radically different world. How did you approach the design?
BP: Clint and I have a shorthand, so it was easy to say: “This is what we’re talking about, this is what we mean. Go.” What’s interesting to me about the play is it feels like it could be happening at any time. Any time after Abraham Lincoln this story could be told. I wanted to convey that with the set design. To have a space that is familiar but not necessarily specific: a room floating in the middle of the world.
CH: Audiences and critics have gravitated towards Suzan-Lori Parks’ unique use of language. How do you find your way into that language?
BP: It’s musical, and I’m a musician. Early on in my acting career I learned that my musical ability enables me to get inside of complicated texts whether it’s Shakespeare, August Wilson, or Suzan-Lori Parks. The language elevates the story to a status of importance that demands attention. This script does that right from the beginning with the rhythms of the 3-card monte game. When you walk past a 3-card monte dealer on the street, the rhythm of that language cuts through all the other noises of the world and stops you and you are pulled in. That’s what Suzan-Lori Parks does.