The set for “Top Dog, Underdog” turns everyday life into an exhibit as a recliner, a bed and a table are all fenced in with a red velvet rope. However, the seemingly ordinary scene is surrounded by swords, guns and daggers hanging from the ceiling.
“Top Dog/Underdog” premiered March 1 at the UA Black Box Theater on the Fayetteville Downtown Square. The show explores topics of family conflict and circumstances and features the talents of special guest Kevin Free as the director.
“Top Dog/Underdog” is about two brothers named Lincoln and Booth who have a tense relationship. Lincoln is a reformed three card monte hustler who now works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where patrons pay to shoot him in the back of the head to reenact the president’s assassination. Booth, Lincoln’s brother, mostly makes his living through stealing and practicing the three card monte.
Free’s production of “Top Dog/Underdog” is set in a museum with an ensemble of museum guides, who are constantly watching Lincoln and Booth. Because Lincoln and Booth are treated like another exhibit by the museum guides, the show turned into a spooky, weird and creepy production, Free said.
“The idea is that at any moment, whatever choice you make, you could die,” Free said.
The brothers’ lives have been greatly affected from their parents abandoning them as children. Throughout “Top Dog, Underdog” Booth attempts to convince his brother to leave his job and join him in hustling people out of their money.
Free cast senior Ahron Young to play the role of Lincoln and senior William Trey Smith to play the role of Booth. “Top Dog/Underdog” has two African-American men as the only two characters, Free said. These two African-American men characters act as representatives of complex themes of masculinity and racism in society. However, Free decided to create an ensemble of six non-black students to be a part of the show as well, he said.
Free’s challenges with “Top Dog/Underdog” were to figure out how the cast could maintain the integrity of the story itself while telling another story, Free said. The story of Lincoln and Booth stands on its’ own, but the story of Lincoln and Booth being a museum exhibit that the docents monitor is also important.
Free is a director, actor and independent playwright who makes a living from theater and audiobook voice work. He has lived in New York City for 25 years and was the first black man to play Bellomy in “The Fantasticks” off-broadway musical in 54 years. In his film debut in 2018, Free played the role of Mr. Dankert in “Eighth Grade,” which comedian Bo Burnham directed.
Free came to Fayetteville in November to cast “Top Dog/Underdog,” and he oversaw 100 auditions for the three productions of the spring 2019 season, he said.
“Top Dog/Underdog” has exceeded Free’s expectations, he said.
“I hope that the audience sees that the performers in the play are courageous and have thrown themselves headlong into this play, which is a beast,” Free said.
As for his directing style, Free believes in harmony when directing, he said. Free wants actors to listen to themselves and to other actors when acting and to make their own choices. Then, he likes to guide their choices within his vision, he said.
“I believe that theater must be larger than life, otherwise we’d go to the movies,” Free said.