Upstart takes a gamble and hits the jackpot
At a time when major corporations like WaMu and Chrylser are closing or on the brink of disintegrating before our eyes, the aptly-named Upstart Productions is doing the unthinkable right now: Launching a new theater company in buzz-starved Deep Ellum with an edgy two-character show starring and directed by two African-American men barely old enough to vote.
And what a glorious thing they have done.
You gotta give props to the company for jumping off the high dive first time out, which they have done with the current production of "Topdog/Underdog," in a cave-like side room at the Dallas Hub Theater on Canton. I agreed to review the show in part as a nod of the hat for having the balls to expect an audience to find them. But it’s not "A for effort" time just because they tried it — it’s "A for excellence," with this surprising, visceral staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winner.
That’s no easy feat. Parks’ racial fulminating play — parts satire, diatribe, manifesto and Bronx cheer to mainstream society in rapid succession — can easily come off as so blatant, even hostile, in its metaphors that audiences can choke on it. Certainly the Dallas Theater Center’s 2004 production skated that razor’s edge, brandishing its imagery like a weapon.
But here, David Jeremiah and Christopher Contrell Piper — who play brothers Lincoln and Booth, and who also directed the show — whisk you away to their world without judgment… and with a healthy dose of humor.
The setting helps. Upstart has fashioned a performance space out of a moldy back room at the Hub. You enter through a makeshift corridor of drapes, emerging in a smallish room with the set right in front of you. It feels as if you’re sharing the shabby apartment with Lincoln and Booth, who dream of better lives but are satisfied for now just to get by. That kind of intimacy could be stultifying, but here it’s simply not, not even a bit.
There’s more metaphor than plot to the play. Lincoln holds down a job — in white-face, he dresses as his namesake Abraham Lincoln in some Martian arcade where tourists ritualistic blow his head off 30 times a day — while Booth, his younger brother, schemes. Booth wants to be the hot-shot three-card monte expert Linc used to be, and he’s practicing in between shoplifting jaunts and trying to win back his former girlfriend.
We’re barely 10 minutes in before images of minstrel shows and low-class hustlers begin to permeate, which is Parks’ way of flipping the bird to the middlebrow audiences that usually attend theater. Yet the actors are so well-fitted to their roles, so comfortable around each other, that the anger seems to have diffused, like an odor in a drafty room. That allows us the chance to wallow in the terrific language of the play, especially its hip-hop rat-a-tats. "Topdog/Underdog" now bears closer resemblance to Sam Shepard’s "True West" than to the radical black theater of LeRoi Jones.
Piper is especially adept at the punctuational rhythms of Booth, a fast-talking playah, while Jeremiah forms the still center of the action. Watching these brothers as they cling to the remnants of their remembered family life, as the struggle against the inevitable realizations of how defeated they should be, is a sad but exhilarating commentary on the power of cognitive dissonance, of allowing or illusions to flourish in the face of squalid reality. What a find this cast — this company — is.