An interview with Jed Reynolds and Stephen Rider, stars of “Topdog/Underdog” – by Jon Roth
September 3o marks the opening night of Topdog/Underdog, a play that has received accolades nationwide for its unsparing treatment of family conflict and poverty in today’s urban landscape. Following the successful September production of Beckett’s Happy Days, Cape May Stage has selected another award-winning piece of drama – Topdog/Underdog garnered playwright Suzan-Lori Parks a Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Parks, who Newsweek called the “Halle Berry of the theater,” was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant the previous year.
The play follows two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who live together in a dingy one-room apartment. Their names (their father’s idea of a joke), give some idea of the deep-seated antagonism and bond between the siblings. The older brother, Lincoln, has given up a successful street hustle playing three-card monte to don whiteface and play the role of Abraham Lincoln in an arcade. His younger brother Booth attempts to learn the tricks of his brother’s former trade, though he lacks Lincoln’s facility with cards. Topdog/Underdog makes excellent use of three-card monte as a metaphor for the experience of these two brothers, who undergo constant gambles and reversals of fortune in their search for the American dream.
The Cape May Stage production will feature the same actors and director who have just performed the piece to rave reviews at the Fremont Centre Theatre in Los Angeles. James Reynolds, best known for his long-standing role as Mayor Abe Carver in Days of Our Lives, directs Jed Reynolds and Stephen Rider as they play brothers Lincoln and Booth, respectively. Exit Zero spoke with the actors before their departure for Cape May to learn more about their interpretation of the play.
Jed: I first read the script in college, almost 10 years ago, and it blew my mind. You usually have to see a play to understand it. This was one of the few plays where in reading it I could really see it happening. It has strong characters, brave dialogue, and real poignancy. I think it’s the best play of this century so far.
Stephen: I saw this play a few years ago and I really enjoyed it. It’s not so different from Hamlet or a Greek tragedy. In a lot of plays people are dealing with difficult topics and killing each other, and if you look in a newspaper, you’ll see that these are universal conflicts. Topdog/Underdog uses 21st century language, but the story is the same. It looks next door and examines family problems on a daily basis. In theater we have the ability to articulate those types of stories. This play just happens to be articulated in an amazing way.
Did either of you immediately relate to one character over the other?
Jed: I totally identified with Lincoln. It seemed to me like he was the protagonist, though you can’t really break the play down this way. I think he’s more similar to me as a person. I wasn’t sure which part I’d have, though, so I started doing a lot of work on Booth. I really get Booth now. I have a better perspective on how the themes work, where the laughs and pauses come in on both sides.
Stephen: When I was at UCLA I worked on two scenes as Lincoln. I think I can do either. I’ve been a person like Booth who has never gotten his due, and like Lincoln I’ve been in places where I try to avoid my past. Lincoln and Booth are the head and tails of the same coin. They’re the same person because they’re from the same background. It’s just that Lincoln is the older sibling and Booth’s father figure. He has to do things differently.
What’s the audience response like?
Stephen: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People of all ages and backgrounds are coming up crying, laughing. We get standing ovations. They’re calling it the number one play in the city.
Jed: If we as actors can connect to the truth, no matter what the topic, people are going to relate. There’s not a lot of great art coming out right now. Movies are cookie-cutter. If you want to be challenged, go to the theater. Especially because we’re in a film town in LA, the positive energy we’re getting is a beautiful thing and a testament to great theater.
Did you pick up any card skills in rehearsal?
Jed: Well, I had to work on the cards every day. It was one of the first things I started doing. I probably wouldn’t take it out on the street, but 20 feet away on stage I’ll fool you any day of the week.
Stephen: He’s being modest. I must commend Jed because he’s doing a great job and the patrons have been so enthusiastic. One review spoke specifically about his cards. Mr. Reynolds told Jed in the beginning that he had to practice. He told me not to touch the cards.
What do you think the play is about?
Jed: It’s about two brothers dealing with life as it comes to them. But they’re dealing with it the best way they know. It’s about the love and the frustration.
Stephen: It’s also about identity. In our reality TV society, unfortunately, everything is about personal branding. People in general have a hard time being themselves. Booth and Lincoln lost both parents very young, and you realize these people don’t really understand who they are until they get older When you don’t know who you are, you just react, and you take that out on those around you. There’s a saying: Hurt people hurt people. We don’t mean to, but we don’t know how to deal with it. These brothers definitely never went to a therapist. How do you deal? That’s the question we’re trying to answer.
Jed: And it’s about the American dream. To be poor and hurting in this country. Especially because we’re in a full-on depression. Every time we do it we find something new.
To what extent is this a play about race?
Stephen: Of course the play deals with race, but it goes beyond that, and to stop there does it a disservice. At the end of the day we’re more alike as people than we are different. Our thoughts are still articulated in the same themes, which are love, hate, lust, and fear. Topdog/Underdog deals with identity across the board. What are we creating when we build an American dream that all citizens can’t take part in? What happens to Generation X, the people left behind?
Jed: If you talk about this as a black play, it can become inaccessible. It handles universal themes. When you watch a fight between brothers onstage, you feel that with your own brother, regardless of your background.
Stephen: A woman came up to me after the play and said, “At the end of play, I realized that your character Booth reminded me of my brother. I started to cry, because that’s what we’re dealing with in our relationship.” If we can get that kind of response, we’re doing our job right.
What do you expect from Cape May?
Jed: I’ve heard lots of good things. That it’s a town with great architecture and food.
Stephen: I’m expecting some good food and some Cape May hospitality. We’re very excited. We want to take this show to another level. We guarantee the audience will enjoy it. If not, they’ll get their money back – Jed’s paying.
For reservations and information, call Cape May Stage on (609) 884-1341 or visit www.capemaystage.com. The Robert Shackleton Playhouse is on Lafayette Street at Bank.