OPERA & THEATRE ‌ Rooting for the Underdog 

Columbia theatre company presents a tricky, mythic tale

click to enlarge Brothers Booth and Lincoln vie for the title of Topdog in Suzan-Lori Parks' pulitzer-winning play
  • Brothers Booth and Lincoln vie for the title of Topdog in Suzan-Lori Parks' pulitzer-winning play

At least Darion McCloud laughs when he hears that no one in Charleston seems to know much about his theatre company. With any luck, that will change soon. McCloud is artistic director of the Columbia, S.C.-based NiA company, which will be bringing its production of Topdog/Underdog to Piccolo.

"We are really grassroots theatre," McCloud says. "We want people to expect the same thing from us as from any other theatre company."

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog. Her play is often praised for being both a straightforward, linear story about familial bonds and a complex tapestry of metaphors and heightened language. Her characters, cruelly named Lincoln and Booth by their father, are two black brothers who struggle in their own ways for a better life. Lincoln works in whiteface as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where customers pay to shoot at him. Booth tries his hand at three-card monte, the game that his brother abandoned in an attempt to live an honest life.

This is the first time NiA will appear at Piccolo (although you may have seen Topdog's director, Alex Smith, in the one-man show One Million Butterflies at Piccolo Fringe last year). The company has been around for nine years and has produced at least 15 shows. NiA, which means "purpose," is an "artists' playgroup," as McCloud calls it — a collective of storytellers, actors, writers, musicians, and poets. The group formed from participants in an African-American acting workshop, which, by its second occurrence had "morphed into a multiethnic actors' workshop." Topdog presents many challenges to theatre practitioners, and to McCloud especially, who not only plays Lincoln but produces the show as well. "Only crazy people do that," he laughs. "I'll never do that again. And I've said that three times."

Smith initially approached NiA with the script for Topdog after seeing a production in New York. "We just had to do it," says McCloud. "The term gets bandied about, but really — it's a work of genius."

Parks' play is a challenge for any company, with its tones of Cain and Abel, race and society, suprarealism, vaudevillian humor, and rhythm.

"It's a monster!" confirms McCloud. "It's so dense, with the characters, their situations, and all the subtext."

This is NiA's fourth run of Topdog. "It still isn't easy," he admits "I have a real love/hate relationship with this script ... but the reward is great when you get it right."

Apparently NiA has gotten it right. The State hailed their production as "one of the top 10 Columbia theatre productions of the past decade." But McCloud doesn't let the praise for NiA's production go to his head. "You could work for years and still find things. But if done right, the genius speaks through."

Listen up, Charleston audiences. NiA just may be on to something.

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG • Piccolo Spoleto's Theatre Series • $12-$15• June 6-9 at 7 p.m.; June 10, 11 at 2 p.m. • 3 hours • PURE Theatre, The Cigar Factory, 701 E. Bay Street • 554-6060


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