Grace Kang

Death, brotherly love and family identity drive Topdog/Underdog, a two-man play produced by the Heritage Theater Ensemble that tackles themes of racial injustice and hypermasculinity.

In the play, a black hustler named Lincoln begins working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator after a member of his crew is shot and killed. He performs at a local arcade, where visitors can pay to shoot at him. Topdog/Underdog will be performed four times this week at the Crescent Underground Theater in Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, from Thursday to Sunday.

A.K. Payne ’19, the director of Topdog/Underdog, said the show tackles the root of “the dangers of hypermasculinity and toxic masculinity, especially in a black community.”

Payne added that the play hits the core of “the American dream and the ways in which it isn’t always accessible or retainable for people of color, and black people specifically.”

“I feel a strong emotional attachment to the show,” said Sekou Conde ’21, who plays the character of Booth, Lincoln’s brother in the show. “The themes in the show — the dangers of hypermasculinity, unseen violence against women and racial injustice — are incredibly important and relevant to the narrative of society today.”

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog was first performed in 2001. Shortly thereafter, Parks became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This version of Topdog/Underdog will be produced by the Yale Drama Coalition and the Heritage Theater Ensemble, a black undergraduate theatre company at Yale.

Apart from the stage reading last spring, Topdog/Underdog will be the first show in two years produced by the Heritage Theater Ensemble.

Payne said the inspiration to perform the play came from the current political climate.

“There’s a lot of silences that are happening right now and a lot of masks that are being worn, especially in this country,” Payne said. “We’re talking about politics. There’s a lot of coded language being used in general conversations.”

But, she added, there’s more to this production than just performing a play for viewers.

“Productions are important, but generating ensemble community and family, and generating space for conversation about what theater means, what the significance of black theater is … and just making room for us to build a community together in our exploration of the art form [is also important],” Payne said.

Sabine Decatur ’18, the producer of Topdog/Underdog, said the show is an intimate experience for both the performers and the audience.

The Heritage Theater Ensemble was founded in 1979 by the actress Angela Bassett ’80 DRA ’83.

Grace Kang | grace.kang@yale.edu