Suzan-Lori Parks reflects on 20 years of 'Topdog/Underdog'

This interview is part of New York Theatre Guide's Road to the Tonys series on artists whose unique or long journeys with their show culminated in a nomination.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

It's safe to call the 2022-23 theatre season "the Season of Suzan-Lori." Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has been everywhere on the American theatre scene, with three world-premiere shows hitting the stage within months of each other: the theatrical concert Plays for the Plague Year, the musical The Harder They Come (for which Parks wrote the book), both at The Public Theater, and the play Sally & Tom at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In the middle of all that, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

And to think it all began with a two-hander called Topdog/Underdog just over 20 years ago.

Topdog, to clarify, wasn't Parks's first play, but its 2002 Broadway debut put Parks's name into the mainstream. "I wasn't a new playwright, but I was very much downtown," she explained. "I would say I was a downtown playwright having an uptown experience — I'd never had a show on Broadway."

It's fitting, then, that the "Season of Suzan-Lori" kicked off with a 20th-anniversary Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play in September 2022. "The first time we were on Broadway, we were ambassadors at the Ambassador [Theatre]," she said with a smile. "This time around, we're golden at the Golden."

Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II starred in the revival as Lincoln and Booth (note the historical names), two Black brothers fighting for survival and the upper hand in a world that's hung them out to dry. Both actors earned 2023 Tony nominations, while the entire Topdog/Underdog production got nominated for Best Revival of a Play.

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Parks remembers the exact date she began writing the show: January 6, 1999, which she still calls "Topdog Day" each year. She shared her proposed premise with a friend, who immediately responded, "Go home and write it." So right then, she did.

"It was as if someone was pouring silver liquid down the back of my head," Parks said. "I'd never had that experience in writing before. It just flowed through me — all the love, all the history, all the love that I wanted to give those characters just organized itself."

Having come from such a transcendent writing process, it's no wonder the play succeeded — and continued to transform not only Parks, but new generations of theatre artists and audiences. In between the Broadway premiere and revival, Topdog/Underdog has earned a place in the modern canon and in education, and students worldwide have shared their experiences of the play with Parks.

"I had been approached in the streets of New York, Los Angeles — wherever I went — New Delhi, India," Parks said. "People would come up to me and say, 'Miss Parks, we studied Topdog in school! I'd been approached on that level on a very personal, folks-in-the-streets way.

"I knew that it was reaching people," she continued. "I knew that it was something that people loved — and not just people who look like the two characters in the play, not just Black men... It has incredible resonance throughout all communities, throughout all age groups, throughout all cultures."

Parks intended the play to have that exact universality from the start. Topdog/Underdog reflects "my love of history, my love of Black folks, my love of world culture, my interest in what it means to be alive," she said. Those very themes are why the revival was so relevant 20 years later. In fact, Parks argued, Topdog became even timelier with age.

"Audiences now, more than ever, have a hunger for the 'real real,'" she said. "Let's take out that fourth wall and see what's really going on — and still embrace those two men. And when we embrace those two men in their broken, troubled, loving, striving state, we embrace the part of ourselves that is the same. People get it now in a way that they wanted to get it maybe 20 years ago. People are more ready."

Clearly, the Tony nominators in the audience were ready. Parks herself isn't eligible for Best Revival — only the producers are, as she was eligible for Best Play for the first Broadway run, and a person can't be nominated for writing the same play twice. But Topdog/Underdog wouldn't have become a top American play without her.

Read more Road to the Tonys interviews with 2023 Tony Award nominees.

Top image credit: Suzan-Lori Parks. (Photo by Tam Shell)
In-article image credit: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins in Topdog/Underdog in 2022. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

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