This week the Strange Fruit team got to sit in on a dress rehearsal of a local production of Suzan Lori-Parks‘ play, Top Dog/Underdog. The play looks at a pair of brothers whose dysfunctional relationship provides a framework for questions about family dynamics and what defines black masculinity.
We spoke with the play’s cast, Brian Lee West and Keith McGill, about working on the piece, and how their own lived experiences informed the choices they made on stage. McGill portrays Lincoln, the play’s older brother. “When [director] Kathi Ellis first approached me with this play,” he explains, “I read it, and I went, ‘Oh my god, that’s my brother and me.’”
He says the play mirrors the real relationships between brothers. “Once you’re the younger brother you’re always the younger brother. Once you’re the older brother you’re always the older brother, whatever happens. And in certain situations, you go right back to those roles.”
West says the play forces you to think about what shapes our self-identities. “How do you define yourself as a black man? Is it how many women you have, is it holding a steady job, is it being able to get it over on The Man and prevailing?”
Linc was once the best three-card monte hustler around, and Booth wants to follow in his footsteps, so lots of conversation in the play revolves around the hustle. Linc gave it up and now holds a legitimate, if somewhat bizarre, job. He dresses up as Abraham Lincoln (in whiteface) and people in an arcade pay money to pretend to shoot him—a job Booth maintains is a hustle in its own way. West says that line between selling out and getting by is confronted in real life too, when African Americans have to decide whether to try to ‘tone down’ their blackness in certain situations. “Not to get too metaphysical,” he says, “I don’t know sometimes whether or not… am I wearing a mask? Or is there a mask?”
“What’s great about this play is that there is part of these characters in everyone,” McGill says. “There’s the abandonment, and there’s the how do I relate to you as a sibling, and why is it that we can’t completely fit together, and what happens when we start to get close and then we back off?” Top Dog/Underdog runs through January 20 in the Henry Clay Theater.
We also spoke this week about the twitter beef between rapper Azealia Banks and blogger Perez Hilton, in which Banks called Hilton a “messy faggot.” GLAAD condemned her use of the slur (as did many fans), but Azealia herself identifies as a queer woman of color. Was she merely reclaiming a word, the way the word queer has been reclaimed? And does one LGBTQ-identified person using a slur against another mean something different in black gay culture than it does to white people? We dissect it in our Juicy Fruit segment this week.
We close our show by remembering Louisville educator and activist Dr. J. Blaine Hudson, who passed away this week. As a young man he participated in protests on UofL’s campus, including a takeover of the Dean’s office, when negotiations with school administrators over diversity measures broke down. Later in life, he would occupy that same office again—this time as the Dean. He was a friend to the show and to the social justice community in Louisville. He’ll be greatly missed, but he leaves behind important work and the inspiration, in us, to carry it on.