Two years after bringing George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum to dazzling new life at the Huntington Theatre Company, the inimitable Billy Porter returns to mount a new production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog.
Best known for his Tony- and Grammy-winning turn as Lola in Kinky Boots, Porter has been a mainstay of the New York theater scene for over two decades. Having been present during the creation of the original production in 2001, Porter brings to this revival a priceless perspective that makes this one of the most anticipated productions of the spring.
Welcome back to the Huntington and to Boston!
Though, next time you should direct something in the spring. Both of your shows here have been in the winter.
Listen, I’ve already been cussing people out about that. [laughs] Stop bringing me here in the winter! Let me come in the summer!
The Colored Museum, which you directed here two years ago, Topdog/Underdog, and your autobiographical show, Ghetto Superstar, all originated at [New York’s] Public Theater. What has the Public meant to you over the years, and how has it shaped you as an artist?
The first job that I got in New York City back in the ’80s was a musical called Romance in Hard Times that was written by William Finn, when Joseph Papp was still alive and I was a sophomore at school. I came up for my Christmas break to be an understudy in this production. It opened and closed in two weeks and I went back to Carnegie Mellon afterwards; but what it did for me was it brought me into the family and brought me into a fold of creative energy that was about the people, that was about focusing on speaking to the people who aren’t spoken to, speaking for communities of people who weren’t spoken to. The Public has a history of that, and I felt a part of it for that reason. As a minority, as a gay man—I felt a part of that mission statement. When George C. Wolfe took over, I had a residency there under him when I was trying to find my voice as a writer and as a director; he took me under his wing and gave me the space to explore that. It really is fundamentally my home. It’s where I got everything, really. It’s interesting that you actually know that—a lot of people don’t know that. Because I work in the commercial theater a lot, they don’t really know that my roots are there.
I assume that you saw the original production of Topdog/Underdog?
I saw the original with Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright at the Public, and then it moved to Broadway with Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright. My residency was happening when the transfer to London happened, so I got an opportunity to be in the room for the remounting; I actually went to London with them to put it on. So yeah, I’ve had more of a history than I even remembered with this.
Going back to the very first time you saw it, what kind of impact did it have on you?
We were just talking about how one of the biggest things that sticks out to me is when Lincoln says, “There ain’t no winning.” There is never a win. You only succeed when the man lets you succeed. And when it’s on the line, when everything is on the line, you can rest assured that you will not win. The world is set up that way and it’s hard to have that conversation—let me rephrase this—it was hard to have that conversation prior to this election. We, as minorities, as black and brown people, were overreacting to say that black lives matter; we were overreacting when we cried racism because all of that has changed. Slavery happened, civil rights happened, you all can get over it. That was the tone and the tenet from even those on the left who were on our side, so to now see the truth of it exposed in the way that it’s being exposed right now makes this play resonate so incredibly—it’s just so incredible. The man will either win or they’ll cheat to win, but you can rest assured that they will win because that’s how it’s set up. And that’s a hard conversation to have, because it drains the hope out of everything. How do you live without hope? It’s not even about just black and brown people anymore, which is what I think is the great news about this and the predicament that we’re in. The attack is not just on black and brown people, it’s on everybody that’s not rich or white or male. Now there’s a different kind of conversation that can happen, and maybe we might get to the core of how to shift the narrative into something that’s better for everyone.
In the 15 or so years since it was written, do you think the urgency of the play has increased?
I do. When it was written it was very, very, very, powerful and then we got we got a black president, and everybody thought we had been healed and everything had changed. Those of us inside of it were like, “Well, you know, it’s a good step, but all the stuff that was there before the black president is still there and still festering and still brewing.” And now we’re not addressing it at all because we think we won something. We know now. It’s so much easier, I have to say. I’ve been black my whole life, so it’s way easier when you know who your enemy is, as opposed to someone being politically correct about it. I would rather you call me a nigger to my face because then I know and I know how to deal with you.
What words of wisdom, if any, did George C. Wolfe impart to you when you took on this project?
He didn’t impart nothin’ to me. [laughs] I was in the room with him when he did it, so that’s his words of wisdom. You don’t need the words of wisdom because I was there.
In being there for the creation of Topdog/Underdog, what stuck with you the most?
The language. The simplicity of the language, and how, if you focus on the clarity of the language, the play directs itself. It’s that kind of play. It don’t need no extra nothing. It’s all there.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG. 3.10–4.9 AT THE HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 264 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG