|Un-Brotherly "Topdog/Underdog" Stage Relationship Will Challenge Acting Skills of Real-Life Siblings
February 01, 2007
Contact: Bill Giduz
The hardest thing brothers Jonathon and Ryan Hubbard face in their starring roles in Davidson College’s upcoming production of Topdog/Underdog is learning to antagonize each other on stage as much as they love and respect each other in real life.
(l-r) Brothers Jonathon and Ryan Hubbard play "Topdog" and "Underdog" in the Suzan-Lori Parks play.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this raw, moving depiction of the relationship between two down-and-out brothers, abandoned as teenagers by both their mother and a father, who cruelly named them "Lincoln" and "Booth." There’s very little other than blood kinship in the play that is familiar to the Hubbard brothers.
The play will be presented February 7-11 in the Black Box Theatre of Cunningham Fine Arts Building. Due to the explicit language of the play, the Department of Theatre recommends it for mature audiences only. It begins nightly at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on February 11. Tickets are $6 general admission, and $4 for students and seniors. Call 704-894-2361 for information and reservations.
“Our relationship is completely opposite that of Lincoln and Booth,” said Ryan, a junior sociology major. “Jonathon and I have been best friends forever. We live together, we hang out together all the time. We never fight.”
The close relationship is confirmed by their mother, Iris Hubbard of Charlotte. When Ryan, the last of her four sons, was born on Christmas Eve 1985, she handed the baby to sixteen-month-old Jonathon and said, “This is your Christmas present, take care of him.”
Iris continued, “He believed me, and really cared for that baby. Jonathon was six or seven before he realized Ryan wasn’t really his present, but was just another member of the family. Jonathon has always been an ideal big brother.”
The brothers were raised in a happy, nurturing home, respectful of their mother and father, Reggie. They obeyed their mother’s directive to never physically hit each other or use bad words when they fought, did well in school, and still maintain close contact with a 100-year-old senior citizen the family “adopted” more than a decade ago. Iris described them as “undercover comedians” whose ad libs and improptu antics crack up family gatherings. “They’re so close that they’re just completely in tune with each other,” she said.
Given that background and relationship, the brothers will have to convey completely new personalities for their roles in the play. Lincoln and Booth suffer too much from cruel fate, parental neglect, and a hopeless future to fully love each other. Though warm and comic feelings sometimes break through, events in the play build to a shattering conclusion.
The production is an ambitious undertaking for the Hubbard brothers from several aspects. They are well known on campus as standout varsity football players and leaders in the College Union, but neither has ever acted in a Davidson theatre production.
Jonathon Hubbard in a light moment from "Topdog/Underdog"
Jonathon is a theatre major, but his football commitments have never left time for equally time-consuming acting roles. A powerful 220-pound running back and two-year team co-captain, Jonathon finished his Davidson football career as the college’s sixth all-time leading rusher. He enjoyed an equally distinguished prep career at Charlotte Christian School, becoming the leading rusher in Mecklenburg County his senior year. He was also a member of the high school National Honor Society and class president for three years.
As the older "Topdog" brother in the play, Jonathon’s character Lincoln has given up a lucrative con game lifestyle to try to make an honest living. Ryan, the more explosive, passionate "Underdog" named Booth, goads Lincoln to give up his demeaning job and return to the streets as a con man team.
Director Scott Ripley, visiting assistant professor of theatre, said the play’s strength lies in its depiction of the complexity of the strongest human bond. “Familial blood ties are stronger than any other,” he said. “These two brothers couldn’t survive without each other, but they struggle against each other to the death. That’s a fascinating dichotomy to me.”
Ripley noted that the brothers’ characteristics on the field perfectly match their roles in the play. “Jonathon is a steady, pounding, Zen running back; Ryan, a wide receiver, is all quickness and explosiveness, like a tiger. That’s exactly what the play’s about. Booth is very dangerous, always on the verge of doing something unexpected, while Lincoln is grounded and steady, more thoughtful about his actions.”
With one season still ahead, Ryan already ranks in the top ten among all-time Wildcat receivers, and had a 1,000-yard season last fall.
Director Ripley plans to include several other actors in a prologue, and as “corner men” in the boxing ring where he is setting the play. Regardless, the Hubbard brothers will be alone on stage for almost the entire play. They don’t underestimate the enormity of memorizing more than ninety minutes of dialogue and learning to deliver it with believable conviction in a rehearsal window just three weeks long. Jonathon also must learn to “throw” a three card monte with enough skill to convince the audience he won thousands of dollars in using it to con unsuspecting “marks.”
The Hubbards estimate the group and individual work will require at least six hours a day. “There’s only one thing from football that we can apply to help us here, and that’s work ethic,” said Jonathon. “It takes the same level of dedication to be good at acting as it does to be good at football.”
Neither brother envisions this play as the springboard toward an acting career. Jonathon plans to attend graduate business school and eventually inherit his father’s auto sales company. Ryan plans to attend medical school and have a career in pediatric medicine. Besides the challenge of trying something new, they accepted their roles out of a desire to help Davidson toward its goal of diversity education.
Director Scott Ripley works with the Hubbards in rehearsal.
Members of the theatre department decided last spring to present for the first time an African American play during Black History Month. Director Scott Ripley chose Topdog/Underdog as a play that would force the audience to think of their own lives in the context of other cultures. “If we can’t try to understand, and even appreciate, our differences, we aren’t going to make much progress in this world,” Ripley said. “So much trouble of the world’s comes from ignorance. Ryan and Jonathon aren’t Lincoln and Booth, but they could be – I could be; you could be. None of us knows how we would live our lives, in their shoes.”
While she’s immensely proud of her boys, Iris Hubbard expresses a little trepidation about the nature of the story. Jonathon and Ryan have asked her not to read the script, and have warned her they will be cursing violently and expressing tremendous animosity toward each other. She said, “I told them if they’re going to shock me and make me cry, they’d better be good at it. I want to be convinced at the end that they’re just acting!”
Suzanne-Lori Parks has emerged as one of the greatest contemporary American playwrights. She was named by the New York Times in 1989 as “The year’s most promising new playwright,” and received a 2001 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” award before Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Parks has also won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Obie Awards for playwriting.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz