Thirteen years ago this week Suzan-Lori Parks' groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize winning play TOPDOG/ UNDERDOG was performed at the Curran Theatre. Gracie Hays talks with her mom, Carole Shorenstein Hays about what her experience was like as the show's lead producer.
Gracie Hays: How did you get involved in TOPDOG/UNDERDOG?
Carole Shorenstein Hays: I was always an admirer of George C. Wolfe's work and at that time he was the director of the Public Theater and was also directing TOPDOG. I was also following Suzan Lori Parks' work at that time, so when I heard they were working together I thought to myself, "Hmm, this sounds really interesting." Once I saw it I just thought, "Wow! This is a really special play. We've got to bring it to Broadway!" Working with George C. Wolfe and Suzan-Lori Parks was an absolutely fantastic experience. It was one of the biggest joys of my life.
GH: So, you were immediately sold on producing TOPDOG/UNDERDOG after seeing it performed on stage the first time?
CSH: Yes! When I read the script afterwards, I just wound up loving the story even more.
GH: Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to the story?
CSH: I just thought it was such a good story about brothers. A great family story. It was the story of a family that really cared about each other, but that was also just so damaged. On top of that, the writing was very daring. It was such a powerful image when the character Lincoln puts on whiteface. And the fact that the brothers' names are Booth and Lincoln was really thought provoking. Suzan Lori put so many interesting twists into the script.
GH: What was it like when Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for TOPDOG/UNDERDOG?
CSH: When Suzan-Lori won the Pulitzer she was the first African American female to ever win, so it was just an extraordinary time. It was very thrilling because the [Pulitzer] announcement happened only a few days before TOPDOG opened and leading up that, we had made barely any ticket sales. All of a sudden though, the play just exploded in New York and starting getting all this attention. It seemed like everyone was trying to get a ticket. What was initially a risky proposition immediately became very mainstream.
GH: What were some challenges you faced in presenting this work?
CSH: We really had to persevere in the beginning, despite the lack of ticket sales. We had to work very hard just to get people to show up during the previews, but then once the reviews hit--bingo! It just took sail. Probably the biggest obstacle though, had to do with casting. Don Cheadle had originally played Booth alongside Jeffrey Wright [in the pre-Broadway production] at The Public Theater and then 911 happened. At that time, Cheadle was living in Los Angeles and said he wouldn't stay in New York, so we had to find a replacement and we couldn't find anyone. We just could not find anyone. George C. Wolfe and I were spending every minute on the phone with each other going through casting lists and one day I came across this name and said, "Now who's this person? Mos...Def...? And I think you were playing in the background and screeched, "Oh that's the rapper Mos Def! His name's short for most definitely!" I said, "Gracie, do you like him? And you said, "Yeah," so I thought, "What about him?" That's the truth and then George wound up casting him and he was perfect for the role. That was [Mos Def's] first time performing on Broadway and it turns out he had always wanted to work with George.
GH: Can you talk about what it was like when TOPDOG/UNDERDOG came to the Curran here in San Francisco?
CSH: Well, it was really wonderful because it was always a dream of mine to present shows that I had produced in New York to my hometown audience. When TOPDOG came to San Francisco it really seemed to have an audience that was excited for it. I remember that George was even able to come out and explore the city a bit. He loved the Curran and being in San Francisco, so it was all just really great.
Caption: Larry Gilliard Jr. and Harold Perrineau in the 2003 touring production of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG at the Curran Theatre. Photo by Katy Raddatz for the Chronicle.