Kenny Leon and Suzan Lori-Parks

Topdog/Underdog Is the Intimate Epic That Broadway Needs Right Now

Two brothers, tight quarters, a long-simmering rivalry, a gun: The components of Topdog/Underdog couldn’t be simpler.

But as director Kenny Leon will tell you, they add up to so much more.

“What other play is there that has the ingredients that this play has?” he asks. “It has the best of what makes a comedy great. It has the best of what makes a drama great. It has the best of what makes a classical piece of theater work. And even though it’s not a musical, it has all the rhythm and all the best of musical theater. I don’t know anything that feeds us like this particular play.”

Leon is waxing rhapsodic about Topdog/Underdog, as he’s deep in rehearsals for the Pulitzer Prize–winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks. Twenty years after it first played Broadway, the show returns this fall in a production directed by Leon and starring two of Hollywood’s hottest young actors: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen, The Matrix Resurrections, The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Corey Hawkins (In the Heights, the upcoming The Color Purple).

Hawkins plays Lincoln, a former card hustler who now earns a living at a carnival arcade, dressing up and donning whiteface as the 16th president so customers can pretend to shoot him. When his younger brother, Booth, played by Abdul-Mateen, tempts Lincoln out of retirement to teach him the ropes of three-card monte, there are explosive consequences for them both.

Parks, the distinguished playwright and screenwriter (The United States vs. Billie Holiday, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World) who’s been awarded everything from a Pulitzer to a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur “genius” grant, calls the trio of Abdul-Mateen, Hawkins, and Leon “the brotherhood.” “To me, Corey is the lightning and Yahya is the thunder,” she says. “Corey channels it from the sky, and Yahya be tellin’ it from the earth.”

When Leon talks about working on the play, he gets downright spiritual. “It’s like going to church every day with the script as our Bible,” he says.

That seems about right for a show that Parks wrote as if channeling divine inspiration. She can pinpoint exactly when she started writing it (January 6, 1999), and she had a draft ready for its first reading three days later.

“I tell people this and they think, ‘Oh, she’s crazy,’” she says with a laugh. “But as I was typing, it was as if I could have looked up over my shoulder and I would have seen a hand with a silver gravy boat pouring silver liquid into the back of my head. It was coming so fast and so clear.”

She adds, “I wanted to write something that would allow Black men to shine, but that sounds so calculating. Really, I was just sitting in my apartment listening to the voices.”

Topdog/Underdog premiered in 2001 at the Public Theater, where the play resonated so strongly with both critics and audiences that it transferred to Broadway, picked up a Pulitzer, and was ultimately named “the greatest American play of the past 25 years” by the critics of The New York Times. Leon says the show remains just as powerful — and as relevant — today as it was then.

“There’s no way our production could be like what they did 20 years ago,” he says. “At the beginning of each rehearsal, I have Corey and Yahya sit around and tell me what they saw walking through New York City in the last 24 hours. We try to take what we’re doing in the room and marry it to what’s happening in the world right now, the good and the bad, and to focus on the need for the good.”

He adds that the play tells a story that’s both timely and timeless, with themes that touch on humanity, family, brotherhood, love, capitalism, and the American dream. “This is a fable. It’s a story that we share. It’s bigger than life. It’s a universal story that can feed us now and 500 years from now.”

Parks echoes the sentiment. “This is still a song of love,” she says. “I think of the theme of the play as: Just wake up to love. Don’t let the world get in the way; don’t let the cards get in the way. Don’t let us forget how much we love each other. It’s still a song that needs to be sung and a story that needs to be told.”

To hear Leon tell it, the new production is already winning cheers. “I’ve directed something like a dozen Broadway shows, but I’ve never had a response on a first rehearsal read-through like I did with this one,” he reveals. “Everyone stomped and applauded for three or four minutes. Continuously! That feeling I’ll never forget.”

Learn More About Topdog/Underdog