Read-through of “Topdog/Underdog” complex, compelling

This past week, a crowd gathered in the Wright theatre to watch a dynamic reading of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning “Topdog/Underdog”. The read-through was one of three theatre performances at the 7th annual African American Arts Festival, co-sponsered by Spotlight UB and the Diversity and Culture office. Kimberly Lynne, who is teaching Playwriting at UB for the first time this semester, put together the reading.

Topdog/Underdog follows two African American brothers, played by J Hargrove and Brandan Tate, through a few pivotal weeks of their lives. Through their conversations about the past and present, the play explores the unique and perhaps insurmountable obstacles that they face as black men with troubled pasts.

As Topdog/Underdog was a read through, the production was minimal, bringing in only the most essential elements. The two actors spent much of their time sitting on stools and working with invisible props and modest costumes. Kerrin Smith, a current MFA student, read the stage directions so that the audience could follow the narrative.

Despite the simplicity of the read-through, the gravity of the original work was still present. Building on the undeniable quality of the script, Hargrove and Tate brought the play to life. From their very first interaction, the chemistry between the two was raw and believable. Their brother’s relationship, in all its fierce loyalty and competition, had humor and tragedy that easily captured my attention.

It was this complexity, found in the characters, plot and themes of the play, which led Lynne to set up the reading in the first place. The Playwriting course relies on reading plays and using them as examples.

“I’m not happy with current playwriting textbooks,” Lynne explained. “So I use good script examples to discuss all the various elements of the play. “Topdog” is a great example of perfect protagonist/antagonist orchestration, natural dialogue, plot structure and character arc matching plot arc, and pacing.”

By the end of the reading of the play, hearing it read by such talented actors greatly deepened my experience of Parks’ work. I have little doubt that the Playwriting class, and those students or community members who also attended, felt the same.

Spotlight’s next production is “Purgatory”, a short and terrifying play by William Butler Yeats on Thursday, March 26 at 12:30 and 5:30 for Lynne’s Irish Culture and Steve Matanle’s Irish Literature courses.

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