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In ‘Topdog/Underdog,’ They Perfect the Art of Deception

“I know we brothers,” Lincoln tells his younger sibling, Booth, in Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog.” With a slight hesitation, he then asks, “but is we really brothers, you know, blood brothers or not, you and me, whatduhyathink?”

The question, posed late in this dynamic two-hander, is both a catalyst and crisis for Parks’s most famous characters: Lincoln, or “Link,” a three-card monte con artist turned whiteface-wearing Abraham Lincoln impersonator, and Booth, a shoplifter and ladies’ man. And for the actors starring in the play’s Broadway revival, Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the question takes on an even deeper meaning given their electrifying chemistry onstage.

“What I love about this experience is that there’s so much respect back and forth between Corey and me,” Abdul-Mateen, 38, who portrays Booth, said. “It’s no ego, just respect.”

Hawkins, 34, playfully quipped, “I have a little bit of ego.”

In his review, Jesse Green praised both actors, noting Hawkins’s “astonishing verbal and physical performance” as Lincoln and how Abdul-Mateen, in his Broadway debut, “fully meets the challenge, banking sympathy with his sweetness.”

Hawkins, left, as Lincoln and Abdul-Mateen as Booth in the acclaimed production, directed by Kenny Leon.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

For those familiar with his more debonair roles in movies like “In the Heights” or “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Hawkins, a Tony nominee for “Six Degrees of Separation,” has so thoroughly transformed himself into a man downtrodden by bad choices and racism that he is virtually unrecognizable. Abdul-Mateen, who won an Emmy for “Watchmen,” intoxicates with his exuberant Booth, both flashy and naïve. We realize, too late, that his character has also been changing, and though his metamorphosis might be slower, it is even more jarring.

Under the direction of George C. Wolfe and starring Jeffrey Wright and Yasiin Bey (the rapper formerly known as Mos Def), “Topdog/Underdog” first appeared on Broadway 20 years ago. That year, Parks became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play, and in 2018, The Times named it the best American play of the previous 25 years.

Kenny Leon’s new production of “Topdog/Underdog” was a bit of a risk at a time when young Black playwrights are getting more opportunities on Broadway, and pioneers like Alice Childress and Adrienne Kennedy are finally getting their due. I’ve always considered Booth and Lincoln shaped by the language, swagger and blunted ambition of our earlier hip-hop generation, a sentiment that the show’s sound designer, Justin Ellington, underscores with songs by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar and Nipsey Hussle.

As a result, I wondered how Lincoln and Booth would appear as millennials and in a moment of greater gender fluidity and more nuanced masculinity than the one in which Parks originally conceived them. In an interview this month before one of their performances, Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen described their first encounters with “Topdog/Underdog,” why they think their characters struggles with masculinity still resonate, and how they care for each other as actors and friends in this industry.

Unlike the sibling rivalry they’ve perfected onstage, the two men were genuinely excited to be together offstage, often ending their answers with a compliment for their co-star or by finishing each other’s sentences. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

“I felt seen,” Abdul-Mateen said of first encountering the play.Credit…Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New York Times
Hawkins said he views “the play as an ode or love letter to Black men.”Credit…Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New York Times

Did you know each other before the show?

YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II I used to say that I met Corey once at a party in 2012. But it just might not be true. But I was familiar with Corey for a very long time. I went to Yale, and he went to Juilliard, and you know who’s who in the New York circles.

COREY HAWKINS We all knew of each other. Before I got to Juilliard, I knew how many Black folks were in the program. There were only a certain number of us. But this was my first time meeting him. Of course, I knew his work.

When did you first learn about “Topdog/Underdog”?

HAWKINS I was a junior in high school when the play first premiered at the Public Theater in 2001, so it wasn’t until I was at Juilliard that I came across the show in a student production. A friend of mine, the actor Sheldon Woodley, was directing Amari Cheatom and Johnny Ramey in a version of this play. I was in my first year, wearing what they call “theater blacks” and moving the set pieces around the stage, so I was in the orbit of the play. And then I read it and fell in love with it from there.

ABDUL-MATEEN It might have been in 2010 for me. At Berkeley [where he received a bachelor’s degree], a student was doing a director’s showcase of 15-minute scenes. I had one scene from “Othello,” then I did one scene from “Topdog/Underdog,” and I played Booth. It was the first time I read anything contemporary that felt like it was made for me. There was a line from the play that just stayed with me, “She gonna walk in here looking all hot and [expletive], trying to see how much she can get me to sweat, how much she can get me to give her before she gives me mines.” That made me think of my family, my cousins, my people and my friends. And I felt seen, so I said, “Oh, I got to go investigate Booth some more.”

Twenty years ago, we had less nuanced conversations about Black masculinity than we are having now. Do you think that changes how we see these characters?

HAWKINS I think naturally those differences will be evident because Yahya and I are Black men who live in this era versus 20 years ago. There have been shifts in the conversations around men’s roles and responsibilities, but how I, as an artist, see those things might be different than how my character, Link, sees them. I have to be true to the intentions of what Suzan-Lori Parks wrote, but I do see the play as an ode or love letter to Black men. We can be raw, right, wrong, joyous, funny, heartbreaking and unapologetically Black onstage.

ABDUL-MATEEN I think Booth imagines himself as a romantic who knows about women. He’s probably not in the social circles that are speaking about toxic masculinity, but, like a lot of people I know, he fashions himself a gentleman. But, the beautiful thing about this play is that we get to be masculine and also play husband and wife, be silly, immature and vulnerable. We cry, laugh, talk about being hurt in our family, and tell lies designed to make us seem bigger than we are. And then we call each other out when we can see that we’re not succeeding. The test of the play is who comes out on top, so masculinity is always on display within that room.

“There are moments in the play where I just get to listen, and I’m just like, “Man, this brother’s killing this right now,” Abdul-Mateen said of Hawkins’s performance.Credit…Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New York Times

Your characters’ arcs are subtle and then, especially in Booth’s case, suddenly explosive. How do you prepare for these transformations?

ABDUL-MATEEN I make it my responsibility never to see it coming. Because we don’t see our transformations coming in life. As for Booth, I’m trying to keep it positive for as long as possible since he doesn’t know he has a change coming. And as an actor, I also want to stay ahead of the audience so they can be hopeful for as long as possible. And then they’re surprised or caught off guard at the end, which is what Corey refers to as the “three-card monte” trick within the play.

HAWKINS With three-card monte, you’re just moving the cards around and trying to react to what’s in front of you. I have to hold off for as long as possible with Link as well. He has to fight the drug that is the cards because there is nothing as powerful as when he picks up those cards one more time. And that’s what begins the downward slippery slope for him. But until then, Link and Booth are just bouncing up against each other, pushing until they can’t anymore. That makes it heartbreaking, tragic and surprising for me every night.

Are there any instances in which you’ve been astounded by the other’s performance?

ABDUL-MATEEN It happens all the time.

HAWKINS All the time.

ABDUL-MATEEN Show to show.

HAWKINS Moment to moment.

ABDUL-MATEEN There are moments in the play where I just get to listen, and I’m just like, “Man, this brother’s killing this right now.”

HAWKINS Yeah, at the end of the play, every single show, night after night, I feel like I’m just sitting there watching you give a master class, and I wonder what you will do next. And that’s so exciting, man, because there’s not too many people who can access that range of emotion.

Ultimately, this is a tragedy, but I was struck by the handshake and hug that you give each other onstage after the show ends. Why is that important for the audience to see?

HAWKINS I know we’re both going through it, so I just think it’s a matter of knowing that I got another brother in the fight. We make it look easy, but it isn’t easy going up there. But, for me, I have to let Lincoln go and literally leave him on the floor. So, when I get up, I’m able to reset.

ABDUL-MATEEN I am not Booth, and Corey is not Lincoln. When we take a bow, I am being myself. But, at the beginning, when that curtain goes up, only Corey and I are out there and putting on this show for two and a half hours. I have an obligation to get as close to my character’s truth as possible, and when I want to get that hurt out, I got to give it to Corey’s character. That’s my job. And it’s his job to do the same thing back to me. So, when we take our bows, I get to say, “I appreciate you for taking care of me and that this was a pleasure to do this.”

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