It’s a Wednesday matinee of Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks at the Huntington theatre. A play about two black men in American society, struggling with many systems (societal, economical, fate) that have been rigged against them. The story has Greek elements of fate written into it, what with the characters being named Lincoln and Booth, it is no guess how the story ends.
Being an afternoon show in the middle of the week, understandably, the majority of the audience was of a more advanced age and predominantly white. This didn’t become entirely relevant until the post-show conversation I attended. While I hadn’t been the only twenty-something in the audience, I was the only one (presumably) under 50 in the conversation. At the beginning, I didn’t have a question I was burning to ask so I sat back and listened.
The first question came from a white man in the audience. He started with explaining how he related to the themes of brotherhood and support, how family systems operate between siblings. He then went on to ask if the actors thought the play related to the African-American experience at all.
*cue record scratch*
Tyrone, the actor playing Lincoln, patiently and graciously answered in the affirmative and went on to draw examples from the text to support his thoughts.
Moving on, it became apparent that the first question asked was not a unique thought. Further inquiries and responses lacked any understanding or connection to the fact that this was undeniably an African-American story. The majority of the conversation brought forward was about an individual audience members experience of the story and often a summary of the events.
I was beginning to believe that central themes of the story had been completely lost on the audience until a woman of color spoke. She shared how shaken she was to see how Lincoln had to don white face just to get a job to support himself and his brother. She expressed her frustration and her shock at that type of situation being true today; How black men must often adapt to a white world in order to survive, even at the sacrifice of their self or their identity. She didn’t have a question at the end of her sharing, but I couldn’t help but notice a soft smile on the faces of both actors.
A couple weeks ago, we had a discussion in class about how many regional theatre companies cater their seasons to older, whiter audiences because that is the demographic that pays the bills. While this is obviously a trend and not a rule, it is still present in many, many companies. When this conversation came up however, a rebuttal was presented. We, as theatre makers, should reject the idea that this demographic would only want to see plays by Miller or Ibsen or Williams. Why shouldn’t more diverse stories be told to these audiences? Moreso, isn’t it the duty of the theatre to expand on what an audience might not know or understand?
The topic of race in this country has always been charged. Currently, a large problem is the outright denial that racism still exists in today’s world. We’ve had a black president! Racism is solved! … However, you don’t have to look far in the news to see that racial injustice, unrest, and prejudice is still thriving. So when deniers prevail, how do we reach them and communicate with them?
Now I’m not saying that the white audience members that saw Topdog/Underdog that day are all deniers of the existence of racial prejudice. What I am saying is that there is something about the black experience in America that they are not seeing or understanding.
The responses laid down in this post-show conversation made it clear just how important it is that black stories are continually told to majority white audiences. The questions and experiences expressed were in genuine earnest and appreciation for the work. However, they were still ignorant of one of the stories most central ideas. The conversation gave opportunity for one of the plays intentions to be made clear: today’s society is not post-racial.
Theatre as a tool to educate is one of the strongest weapons we have against ignorance and apathy. I am extremely happy to have attended Topdog/Underdog at the Huntington and hope to see more productions like in the future.