Director James Reynolds tells us why “Topdog/Underdog” is such an important show
Next week, Cape May Stage presents its new show, Topdog/Underdog, which earned its writer, Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, the year it opened on Broadway. Bringing the play to Cape May directly from a successful run in Los Angeles (with the same actors and directors) is a coup for Cape May Stage, though the play has attracted controversy for the explicit language used by the characters – two poor, but streetwise, brothers. We spoke to the director, James Reynolds (best known for his role as Mayor Abe Carver on NBC’s Days of Our Lives), as he prepares for opening night here on September 30.
What first attracted you to working at Cape May Stage? Roy [Cape May Stage’s Artistic Director] and Marlena Steinberg have been friends for a number of years and Roy told my wife, Lissa, and me about this wonderful place called Cape May. He knew we each had solo shows we had performed around the country and asked that we come here.
How was your experience here last year? Lissa did her solo show, A Woman of Independent Means, and I did mine, I, Too, Am America. This past July we were on stage together in Oliver Hailey’s And Where She Stops Nobody Knows. We love the town and the Cape May Stage. The people in Cape May have been extraordinarily welcoming. We appreciate the quality of theater Roy has established in town.
What attracted you to Topdog/Underdog? We have a theater in South Pasadena, CA called the Fremont Centre Theatre. We have been fortunate that in the theater’s 13-year life the critics and audience have lavished praise on us. Roy was aware of the quality of productions. He thought it would be good if we cooperated on a production and suggested Topdog/Underdog. When I read the play and learned of its history I was very excited about directing it.
How did the play go over at Fremont? We had a tremendous run in LA. I have seldom been involved with a show that was so universally acclaimed. Both in print and on the internet we got tremendous reviews. I had heard of Topdog/Underdog before we decided to go ahead with the production, but I knew little about it. Not only was Suzan Lori Parks the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for playwrighting, but Topdog/Underdog was an immediate hit in New York when it opened in 2002.
How did you choose the actors? We auditioned over 50 actors for the two roles. Because the characters are brothers we read a number of the actors for both roles. We were amazed at the talent we had to pick from. We saw, right away, that our son Jed fit the description of the characters. When we finally reduced the number of possibilities to 12 actors we asked each them to read together. Jed and Stephen seem to click, even though I still wasn’t certain who would play Lincoln and who would play Booth.
What would you say to someone who is a regular theater-goer but who isn’t keen on such explicit language? I don’t know that any theater-goer has to be keen on explicit language. I know I’m not. However, theater-goers should be keen on the explicit experience that the play they are watching embodies. Almost every explicit word that is spoken today in popular culture was written in the plays of Shakespeare. Yet in the guise of old English we accept as culture what in the character of modern slang is seen as offensive.
I will not tolerate gratuitous use of expletives. In Topdog/Underdog, as in a Quentin Terantino film, these words are part of the lives we are watching. In this play the explicit language is simply how these two young men talk. It is the desperate childhoods of these two men that offends me. We call the situations these men deal with adult themes, because adults should be able to watch and digest the important ideas this play deals with. Topdog/Underdog is filled with humor and the depth of the human struggle.
Why does the language have to be so explicit? I don’t know that the language HAS to be explicit. I do know the language must illuminate the lives of the characters we are watching. The strong language is not done for effect – on the contrary, it is simply the way they communicate. I have a friend who is very successful and well known. Every other word he utters starts with “F” and yet he is not shunned.
Did you have any walk-outs during the run at the Fremont theater? No one ever walked out of Topdog/Underdog in our Los Angeles production. No one in the press mentioned language. None of the many audience members spoke of being offended. The conversation was of how wonderful the two actors were.
How does it feel to have walk-outs as a director or an actor? I have never experienced people walking out in a huff. So as an actor or director I don’t know how that would feel. I would doubt if it would bother me. I would never be involved in something that would be gratuitous. I am not an anything-goes kind of guy. If anything, I am a little uptight. Audiences must educate themselves about the plays they see, the music they listen to, the TV they watch, and the films they go to. The public does not need to be protected from art.
What is your next project? We have two projects we are considering for our next season that I may direct. One play tells stories of a Jewish neighborhood in post-World War II New York. The other concerns an African-American family dealing with end-of-life issues. I purposely mentioned the ethnicity of the characters because each deals with themes that are universal. Ultimately, humans share the same stories, no matter the coarseness of the language or the uniqueness of the idiom.