Tony-winning actor Billy Porter is burnishing his multi-hyphenate rep as director of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Topdog/Underdog, which plays through April 9 at the BU Theatre. Porter starred as Booth in a 2004 production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer winner, which follows the relationship of two black brothers—wannabe card shark Booth and reformed three-card monte hustler Lincoln. We chatted with Porter about revisiting the drama from the director’s chair.
What appealed to you most about directing Topdog/Underdog? I think this play is remarkable, and I had an opportunity being involved in it originally with George Wolfe, when he took it over to London with Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def. What I love about this play is that it speaks to the larger predicament that we’re in and how society sort of creates a world where particular groups of people don’t have access to anything. And as a result of that, their lives are bleak. This play speaks to that in a way that’s so profound because it’s a microcosm of these two men, and how they’re forced to live, and the outcome that results from that.
This is your second time directing at the Huntington, and you’ll receive its Wimberly Award in April. How important is your relationship with the company? Peter [DuBois] and I came up under George Wolfe together at the Public. He was a producer for a number of years, and I was doing a residency there, and so we sort of came up in that way. And in my transition from being a performer to being a writer and a director, it takes people who know you and believe in you to give you an opportunity to expand in that way. The Huntington has become a home for me in that way, because Peter knows me and he trusts me, and it has allowed me the space to prove myself in this expansion that I’m making. And I love Boston. Boston is a beautiful space.
How key is developing a chemistry between the two actors in this play? You kind of have to know each other in the trenches. It’s only two people. That kind of cohesive energy has to happen quick. I’m so thankful that I have the actors I have. I’ve known Tyrone Henderson, who’s playing Lincoln, for about 25 years, so we have a shorthand. Matthew [Harris] is new to me, but he has quickly become family. It’s just extraordinary. They come prepared—this is a two-hander play that’s very wordy.
Are there any changes being made for this production? The play won the Pulitzer, so there ain’t nothing that needs to be changed about it. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel. I’m looking to tell the story.
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