In a major revival of an acclaimed play, Topdog/Underdog brings two of Hollywood’s brightest talents together on a Broadway stage.
After previous appearances in Six Degrees of Separation and Romeo and Juliet, Corey Hawkins returns to Broadway fresh off the film version of In the Heights and soon to star in the upcoming movie musical The Color Purple. Matching him beat for beat in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize–winning play is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, making his Broadway debut after grabbing attention in screen work that’s included The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Matrix Resurrections, and an Emmy-winning turn in Watchmen.
Each actor speaks glowingly of his costar — and sees Topdog/Underdog as an opportunity to test his mettle against a highly skilled fellow performer. “It’s definitely a case of iron sharpens iron,” says Abdul-Mateen.
In Topdog/Underdog, he plays the striving Booth, who wants to hone his skills hustling strangers at three-card monte. Hawkins stars as his older brother, Lincoln, who gave up cards for a job dressing as an effigy of Abraham Lincoln for carnivalgoers to shoot at. Wrestling for dominance in the one-room apartment they share, the brothers’ bonds of rivalry, family, trust, and legacy tangle and tighten, bringing both siblings to the breaking point.
Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen first separately encountered Parks’ 2001 play as students; Abdul-Mateen even performed an excerpt from the show for an acting class. Now both actors say they’re coming to Topdog/Underdog older and wiser.
“When I was younger, I saw the play through Booth’s eyes,” Hawkins says. “Now I’m in my thirties and it’s a blessing to get to see this play through Lincoln’s. He’s struggling and coming up against being in your mid-thirties with all the hopes, the dreams, the disappointments.”
He goes on, “I’m an older brother too, like Lincoln. I understand feeling like you have to be responsible for someone younger than you, like a father figure or, for me, a strong positive male figure for my little sister. That appeals to me about Lincoln.”
For Abdul-Mateen, he’s approaching the role of Booth very differently than he did in undergrad. “Back then it was about fun, and getting on stage and being charismatic. Booth is a firecracker. He has a sharp togue. He doesn’t hold back. That suited me back then.”
But, he continues, “I’m a man now. Booth is still a dreamer, but now I know more about what it means to love and to experience loss and grief, and to try to measure up in the world and feel like you don’t have so much. That’s what I wanted to make sure to include with Booth this time around.”
At every performance of Topdog/Underdog, Abdul-Mateen and Hawkins enact a story that’s both singular and universal at the same time.
“It’s a beautiful play,” Hawkins says. “You see these two brothers at a very specific point in their lives. It’s raw. It’s raucous. It’s quiet. It’s in your face. You get on that roller coaster and you see yourself on that stage.”
Abdul-Mateen agrees. “This play is a slice of life that’s deeply human,” he explains. “It’s attractive to me that I get to give a voice and a platform for this class of Black men to be seen and to have a full range of humanity. These are well-rounded characters who have significant lives and have something to say. That’s not always a given in stories about Black men, but this play isn’t just about Booth’s and Lincoln’s hardships. It’s about their humanity.”
At the same time, he says, “this story is a fable. To be able to play these epic, Herculean, Shakespearean-type characters, and to speak these words? It feels like home.”
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