Port Exclusive: Q&A: Actor David Rainey Reflects on Topdog...

Posted by: Staffon 2004/5/11 8:20:00 2341 reads The curtain came down for the final time marking 156 performances of Topdog/Underdog for Alley resident company members David Rainey and K. Todd Freeman. The two actors took their last bows on Sunday, May 9th at Hartford Stage in Connecticut. For Rainey and Freeman, the journey of working on Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning drama began at Steppenwolf Theatre as a co-production with the Alley Theatre.

After performances in Chicago, the tour took Rainey and Freeman back to Houston and then through Dallas and Hartford. David Rainey was gracious enough to grant Theatreport an interview via e-mail a few days before closing the show. And what follows is a reflection on the challenges and experiences he had with the tour…

How is the tour going so far in Hartford?

Well things are winding down here. We have only a few more performances left, and things have been pretty great. I have been enjoying the people at Hartford Stage. Over this four-city tour you can really tell if an organization is healthy by how people who work there relate to each other. And the folks here have been terrific.

Topdog/Underdog is a joint venture between Steppenwolf and the Alley. Have you ever been part of something like this before? Have you ever toured this much?

Yes I have done this kind of thing before. I was in the original cast of Black Eagles by Leslie Lee, which started at Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ, then went to Ford Theatre in Washington, DC and ended Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. That production was a little different than this in that it took a year and a half to complete its cycle, with gaps between where you could do a range of other things. Also, Top Dog’s schedule was determined before we began the process, so you could mentally gear yourself up for a long extended performance schedule, where the additional venues for Black Eagles were added with each step we took with the production.

The play contains strong language and is for mature audiences. Have you received any unusual reactions from theatergoers?

Yes we have . . .

In every city we have gone to there has been, in the same audience, people who have been devastated by the show, and sitting next to them people who have vilified the show. My favorite reaction came from a woman in Dallas who walk out in the middle of the performance and cursed the house manager up and down for presenting such a filthy show, then announced that instead of staying she was going home to watch “The Sopranos”.

And in Hartford we have had a few disconcerting moments. Usually when we get large amounts of African American audiences at these large regional venues, which typically have a low minority presence, the African American patrons serve to inform the rest of the audience. They don’t have to think about how to react to certain lines or situations, and they will usually bring insights to the play that other audience members might miss or be unsure how to react to. But at Hartford we had a few pockets of African American audiences that had very unusual reactions to the play. Not only talking to each other throughout the show, but laughing at moments that were deadly serious, such as killing Grace, and even finding Booth shooting Lincoln funny. It angered Ken and myself. And frankly, I felt embarrassed because these are my people, and they were ruining the impact of the show.

We talked about it a lot after one of the four performances where it happened, in which Ken let them know how he felt at curtain call, using sign language. And after talking about it with Ken and a number of other folks at the theatre, I realized that this is one of the things the play is trying to say. The great divide of wealth and inclusion in this country is getting greater and greater. People think because they have African American or Hispanic friends and co-workers, that things are better than they were 25 years ago. But even national statistics are proving that the poor are just getting poorer. There is a whole population of Lincoln’s and Booth’s out there with little to no hope of digging themselves out, and it has never been clearer to me than looking a city like Hartford. This is a city that has been struggling for years to revitalize itself. It is the state capitol with incredible history, great monuments, landmark buildings and beautiful homes. But throughout there are African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, and I have been in them, where the people are living in absolute squalor. Worse than some of the more devastated areas of the South Bronx.

So while I didn’t appreciate the response to the show, it is clear that some of these folks, who simply wanted to experience this play, have been completely pushed out of the mainstream. One of the young women interning at the theatre grew up in Hartford and says that murders like the one in the show go on all the time in her neighborhood, and it isn’t shocking, there is no pathos. This is reality. Now.

It should make one pause.

How have you been able to keep the show “fresh” as an actor?

This is not as difficult as you might think. First of all, this is a very complicated piece of theatre with so many levels working at the same time. We are always discovering new things about it, even now. So I am fortunate to be involved with something that is so challenging. It is not easy to get bored with this show.

Secondly, I have never been a person who felt the need to “entertain” myself on stage. And while I endure it from other performers, I don’t appreciate it. When I go in I have a job to do. The people who took the time out of their lives to march down to the theatre to see me in a show on any given night paid the same money as those that came opening night, when it is important to me. So I try to keep them in mind when I’m out there.

As far as keeping it “fresh”, I try to start at the beginning every night and just let one moment lead to the next until you eventually get to the end. If I am doing that successfully, the world of the play is full of discoveries and nuances that even surprise me sometimes. Every night there is also a new character, the audience, that doesn’t know their lines yet, and my job is to get them to play. I try to paddle them out to deep water, then catch a wave that will surprise, and inspire, and delight and challenge them all the way in to the final moment. Most of the time that is enough to focus on.

What have been the more difficult or challenging experiences throughout this tour?

I would have to say the exhaustion of doing the play. This is by far the most challenging role I have had to play, and the demands of where we have to go in the play are great. There are times when you just don’t feel like taking the trip. And every place we have been we have had problems with tired voices, physical exhaustion, illness and injuries. Being on the road so long is also hard at times. I have been having a great time, believe me, but living out of a suitcase for months on end can wear on you. And I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am blessed to have this opportunity and I know it, but that is just another part of the experience.

You and K. Todd have performed the show in Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and now Hartford. Has one city been more responsive or favorable to the show?

I would say that there haven’t been cities that have been more responsive or favorable to the show, except possibly Houston, because people know us there. In fact, in Chicago K. Todd is a company member at Steppenwolf as well, so Houston and Chicago were pretty similar in that regard.

Dallas had the most people outraged by the show. We were completely broadsided by that. We had no idea what we were walking into. You have to understand that a few years ago Dallas Theatre Center did a production of Six Degrees of Separation, in which they had a naked man on stage. Someone called the police on the theatre under an obscure law about operating an adult business without a license. So during a performance the police came, raided the show, and arrested the actor in question. Need I say more?

Hartford has had the quietest audiences overall. There is still the same range of those who thought it was incredible and those who disliked it, but from the talkbacks it seems that a lot of the audiences in Hartford are very intellectual types who enjoyed it but were just not vocal. And a number of older audience members said that they had some trouble understanding the “dialect”.

What have you enjoyed the most?

Working with K. Todd Freeman. Ken and I have gotten very close working on this show together, and I have really enjoyed sharing the stage with him. He is an incredible actor, and I am often amazed at the emotional courage he has on stage. I have a lot of respect for him.

I have also really enjoyed meeting new people all over the country. I have met a lot of really terrific people everywhere we have been, and plan to stay in touch with a number of them. And as far as places go, Chicago is amazing. After spending 15 years in New York, I didn’t think it would be much different, or that I would like it as much. But it is a great town, and one that I hope to visit again.

If you had a choice of any show to take on tour next, what would it be?

That’s a tough question because it comes down to what plays I would most like to do. At the top of my list at the moment are Richard III, and Iago in Othello. But ultimately I would like to have a challenging role if I were taking something on the road.

What are your plans after the tour?

I have a few things lined up when I get back. I am doing a short engagement with the Houston Grand Opera at Miller Outdoor Theatre at the end of May. No, I am not singing. They needed a Shakespearean actor for their educational series. I will also be understudying for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Those both start when I get back. After that I start rehearsals for the first Summer Chills show at the Alley, Black Coffee, which will take me into July.


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David Rainey
Is in his fourth season as an Alley Resident Company Actor. He recently completed the run of Topdog/Underdog at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre (a co-production with the Alley). Other Alley roles include Marcellus/Player in Hamlet, Donald in You Can't Take It With You, Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol; Pattison, Chairman and Jerome K. Jerome in The Invention of Love; Scanlon in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He has performed on Broadway with The National Actors Theatre, Off-Broadway for Public Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club, toured with The Acting Company and performed in the New York Shakespeare Festival. Regionally, he has worked with the Guthrie Theatre, Hartford Stage Company, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Asolo Theatre Company, and Crossroads Theatre Company. His film and television credits include Cosby, Law & Order, Vengeance Unlimited, As the World Turns, One Life to Live, Lowball, Multifacial, and The 'M' Word. He holds a B.S. in Drama from Eastern New Mexico University, and a B.F.A. from The Juilliard School Drama Division. He received the highest honor awarded to a drama student at The Juilliard School, the Michel and Suria Saint-Denis Prize. In 1995, the William and Eva Fox Foundation named him a Fox Fellow.

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