In a rehearsal room at Huntington Theatre Company on a recent afternoon, the stage manager calls out that it’s time for a break — and mobile phones come out of pockets.
The show’s director, actors, and some support staff start scrolling through news updates, including the latest sign that the new president of the United States isn't up to speed on one of the most critical issues facing the country.
“ ‘Nobody knew health care would be so complicated,’ ” director Billy Porter quotes President Trump with noticeable incredulity. “No: You didn’t know. Some of us had an idea.” Actor Matthew J. Harris pulls out his phone and plays a video clip of a Fox News report. There are groans.
Even in rehearsal for a play that won playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, the political climate fostered by Trump’s young presidency seeps in through the floorboards.
The play is “Topdog/Underdog,” an intense two-hander that might be called a dark comedy. At the BU Theatre through April 9, it’s the story of two African-American brothers living in New York City. The older, played here by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, is named Lincoln; his younger brother (Harris) is Booth.
Lincoln used to run a successful three-card monte game — the street scam by which many tourists in big cities have been separated from their money — but has sworn off the hustle. Now his day job is playing Abraham Lincoln, in whiteface, at an arcade attraction where customers get to play John Wilkes Booth in a reenactment of the president’s assassination. His brother, Booth, hasn’t worked in a long time, but wants Lincoln to teach him the tricks of the three-card monte trade. They’ve been on their own since childhood, abandoned first by their father and then their mother.
There’s a claustrophobic feel to the play, which takes place entirely in the brothers’ sparsely furnished apartment. Porter says the specificity of their social milieu is rooted in the intractable realities of the black experience in America, while remaining a conduit for feelings stirred up by even the latest iPhone news alert.
“The fundamental psychology of slavery was the breakdown of family. We were ripped from our families. We were separated from our people. So the [social] foundation is built on sinking sand. And it’s generational and generational and generational and generational,” he says, seated in a green room on lunch break. “As a community we are constantly trying to come back together. And we succeed a lot. But sometimes we don’t. This play speaks to when we don’t.”
With anti-Semitic threats and other hate crimes on the rise since the presidential election, more Americans are primed to finally understand and perhaps even relate to these issues, Porter says.
“Now we’re not the only ones under attack anymore. So now you understand what we’re talking about. We’ve been talking about institutionalized racism for years. We’ve been laughed at. We’ve been mocked. We’ve been told we’re overreacting. We’ve been told that we’re past that — the civil rights movement happened, slavery happened, now get over it,” he says.
“What makes this play resonate when you hear it is that it’s not about this specific moment, but it is — it’s about all of that. In its specificity, it becomes something that reverberates and resonates forever.”
Porter is a multi-talent. He’s released three albums, won the Tony Award for his performance as Lola in “Kinky Boots,” and also directed George C. Wolfe’s provocative “The Colored Museum” at the Huntington two years ago. Wolfe was a mentor of Porter’s, and directed the first productions of “Topdog/Underdog.” Porter himself has played the role of Booth.
Harris caught the show’s 2001 Public Theater production as an acting student, and promptly played Booth in a scene from the play for a class workshop.
“It’s about what happens when people don’t have the opportunities to be able to be the best versions of themselves and how that can kill you inside, how it can enrage you and you eventually just implode,” he says. “Hopefully that will resonate with the audience in a way that they can connect to a larger scale, outside of these characters.”
Henderson worked with Wolfe on the world premiere of “The America Play,” another piece by Parks that features a black man dressed as Abraham Lincoln. He’s also played the Lincoln character in “Topdog/Underdog” before.
He and Harris had never met before working on the Huntington’s production, but their rapport is obvious. As they talk about the show with a reporter, they sometimes weave in and out of each other’s sentences with a rhythm similar to the card-game patter Parks meticulously notates in her script.
“It was tough for me to watch,” Henderson says of the play’s 2001 production, “because you really want them to win. And there’s a couple moments in Act One and then a moment in Act Two when you just think they’re finally going to make it.”
But like the chumps they aim to swindle at cards, Lincoln and Booth are, in a larger sense, stuck playing someone else’s game, Porter says. “If the three-card monte dealer doesn’t want you to win, you do not win. If you win, it’s only because he lets you.”
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At BU Theatre, through April 9. Tickets starting at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org