Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks directs her own Pulitzer Prize winning play TOPDOG/ UNDERDOG — starring a pair of brothers as a pair of brothers — when Two River Theater Company opens its new mainstage season this weekend.
By TOM CHESEK
For centuries, the irresistible promise of quick cash money has kept the classic betting game known as Three Card Monte — or Find the Lady, the Old Shell Game, and dozens of other variants — a favorite draw on street corners and cardboard boxes worldwide. This despite the fact that things are pretty much never quite as they appear, to put it diplomatically.
Ten years ago, no less an entity than the Pulitzer Board recognized the eternal allure of the game by awarding that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama to the Suzan-Lori Parks play Topdog/Underdog — a tale of two brothers, three cards, and a collective past that can’t be escaped.
As the first African American woman to have been awarded the Drama Prize, Parks made history. And, on the tenth anniversary of that theatrical milestone, Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias and managing director Michael Hurst return to the play that they helped develop in its premiere at NYC’s Public Theater — with the playwright herself on board as director for this inaugural offering of TRTC’s 2012-2013 mainstage season.
While her résumé also boasts an additional Pulitzer nomination, an Obie award and a MacArthur Genius Grant, the playwright and screenwriter, who was raised in a Germany-based military family (and who garnered huzzahs for her adaptation of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, itself a Tony winner this year for Best Musical Revival), won acclaim for capturing the sad, seedy, SRO world of brothers Lincoln and Booth. Upping the ante on the excitement of Parks’ personal participation is the fact that the siblings with those weirdly conflicting first names are being portrayed here by a pair of real-life brothers.
In the intimate setting of the script, Brandon J. Dirden (seen earlier this year in TRTC’s production of August Wilson’s Jitney) appears as older brother Lincoln — a man whose curriculum vitae involves working as a shooting-arcade human target, dressed like Honest Abe. He’s also a man whose split with his spouse has deposited him at the downscale digs of his younger brother Booth, played by Jason Dirden (a co-star in the 2010 Broadway revival of Wilson’s Fences). Over the course of the humor-laced dramatic action, the brothers reopen old wounds, argue the finer points of the three-card street game, and show off some fine stolen clothes — only to find that in the process of “striving for a better life, bound by their love for each other, they are haunted by their own pasts — and our country’s history.”
The Drama Desk at redbankgreen spoke to Brandon (who was then just wrapping up his contribution to the Tony and Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park on Broadway) and Jason at the edge of a grueling round of rehearsals. Turn that card over for more…
redbankgreen: You’re hardly the first set of brothers to play brothers, and from what I understand this is not the first time you’ve worked together on stage — but what about this play makes it an absolute MUST project? What caused you to clear your schedules and declare that this was a production you wanted in on?
JASON DIRDEN: Certainly it’s the chance to work here with Suzan. What Suzan has written here is about brothers, on any level — the sibling rivalries, the things that keep them bonded to each other for life.
BRANDON J. DIRDEN: And what Jason and I bring to this project is a genuine individual connection. We went to the same school, to Morehouse College, and we were in a couple of plays together… but never as brothers.
JASON: Brandon and I are two out of five in real life. Our father (character man Willie Dirden) is an actor as well.
BRANDON: Of the five, we’re the only ones who pursued acting as a career.
What were some of the other things you teamed up on, leading into this production?
BRANDON: What really began it for us was, Kenny Leon had a playhouse in Atlanta and the opportunity came up for me to audition for Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. Jason and I had done that play in high school together, and when I read I told them, ‘I have a younger brother who’d be great for this… can Kenny maybe audition him too?’ And then the next time, well, Jason should tell you about the next time…
JASON: The next time was at Kennedy Center in 2008, with a 20th Anniversary production of August Wilson’s cycle… I met Ruben Santiago-Hudson then; he had a play that he was doing called The First Breeze of Summer, and when I read for the show I mentioned that I happened to have an older brother who’d be perfect for this slightly older role…
BRANDON: And then our next show after this will be The Piano Lesson, by August Wilson… as best friends this time.
It sounds like you guys have been looking out for each other’s careers for some time now. I’m aware that you each have your separate projects, but are you always on the lookout for properties that you can collaborate on, and do they take precedence over other commitments?
BRANDON: I had to turn down other opportunities to do this play. I was slated to do ‘The Scottish Play‘ with my wife at Georgia Shakespeare – we were going to be the ‘Scottish Couple,’ you know – but I don’t want to work with my brother too many times; we start to pick up all sorts of bad habits from each other. We’ve both got to get back to the individual every now and then!
Is there a moment or moments in TOPDOG, some little thing that maybe exists between the lines of the script, that just resonates in a purely private way with you, something that causes you to flash back to being six, seven years old? And does Two River have you guys sharing quarters for the duration of this production?
BRANDON (laughs): Well, we shared quarters when we were kids, so we did our time with that! No, they are putting us up in adjoining, but very much separate, apartments. So, hopefully, there won’t be any six-year-old stuff going on.
Brandon, you yourself have a prior history with this show, and I’m wondering about your impressions of it might have changed or stayed the same going into this production. Did you get a chance to catch the original Off Broadway or Broadway productions with Jeffrey Wright, Don Cheadle — or one of my favorite unsung actors, Mr. Mos Def?
BRANDON: I saw the Mos Def, Jeffrey Wright interpretation, and I was just blown away by the fact that this material had found its way to the Great White Way. I don’t have any specific memories, but I was impressed by Mos Def and his feelings, his energy… and Wright is just this precision actor, a master at what he does.
I actually played Jason’s role in another production about five years ago. I don’t think I realized at that point just how much of yourself you have to give for this show. I was just dumb enough to just jump in, not give it a second thought.
So now, seeing the play from the other side, the other character… I have to say that we cannot make it through an entire rehearsal without feeling drained. I’d be hard pressed to do this show one more time after this. It’s that intense an experience.
JASON: It’s the most amazing feeling, being part of this thing, stepping into this world that Suzan has created. Plus, I get to brag on my brother every day after rehearsal!
And you get to do it all in this lovely theater that’s sprung up way down in the suburbs, that’s started to attract all kinds of pretty amazing people.
BRANDON: Usually we would have have to think twice about taking a job outside of New York, but working here in Red Bank, where you have everything happening in combination with the proximity to New York, I don’t have to worry about that. When you’re performing here, you’re in front of an audience that really wants to be here. They love being able to see a top-notch quality show in their back yard.
It’s a very appreciative audience that Bob (Rechnitz, founder and exec producer of TRTC) has cultivated over the years. Extremely loyal.
JASON: It’s incredible to me, how the community has just embraced the theater. You go to places like the post office, the Rite Aid, and hear people talking about the show they saw there. In New York you hear a lot of talk about shows also, but it’s different. More competitive. Here, it’s refreshing to see how proud people are of what they have. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
Topdog/Underdog presents five preview performances (September 8-9 and 11-13); opens on Friday, September 14 (that performance is SOLD OUT), and continues with a schedule of evening and matinee performances, September 15 through 30. Tickets are $37 – $57 (with a discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger, and a limited amount of bargain-priced $20 seats) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on BeforePlay presentations, dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.