In the current constellation of African American actors, Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle are our dark stars, orbitally unpredictable, supernaturally backlit, aglow. Gliding between the Scylla of Sambo for Hire and the Charybdis of Dignified Token in the Window 9, they turn in performances light years in nuance and demeanor from some of their more clamorous cousins. Now sharing a stage at the Public Theater in Suzan–Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, the two are igniting the joint with volatile, virtuosic energy. Theirs is a balanced duet brimming over with wit, panache, funk, and what Ntozake Shange once identified as “the relaxed virility of our champions.” In Topdog/ Underdog, directed by George C. Wolfe, Wright and Cheadle enact the sibling sparring matches of Lincoln and Booth, two blood brothers who share a shoddy, single-room apartment and a world of pain, shame, and illicit gain via stolen goods and three-card monte.
Both of you have musical backgrounds—guitar and drums for Jeffrey, sax and piano for Don. How much do you reference music in your craft?
WRIGHT: More and more I see plays as music and math. Particularly with this play, because it becomes a linguistic event if it’s done right. A carnival ride on language. So much of it is musical equations—I find myself playing a lot of musical phrases to give it something beyond naturalism.
Jeffrey, in this production you play the older, craftier Lincoln character, but you played the Booth part in last year’s workshop. Did Booth offer you the same opportunities for those kinds of flights?
WRIGHT: I think so, but Lincoln is more of a performer within the performance, so I can find variation within it. Simply because he wears masks. He takes them off, he puts them back on.
A friend remarked on the lack of competition that was evident onstage—which is kind of ironic, given what the piece is about. Is there a space in this kind of work for one actor to try to outflex the other?
CHEADLE: Any type of grandstanding would really subvert the play. One of its strengths is when one of the characters gives in to the other character, and then takes over. Dangling out there and getting so invested in needing the other character that, when you don’t get what you need, you’re on the precipice looking over the edge.
WRIGHT: I’m competing every night. And that play is kicking my ass. It’s really like you’re in competition with the play.
Like Wynton Marsalis talking about how every night he goes out to do battle with the blues.
WRIGHT: That’s right. It’s doing battle with the thing that doesn’t exist. It’s about trying to whittle away all the bullshit.
A big attraction for the audience is the opportunity to see two virtuosos onstage at the same time. How long did it take you guys to create a comfort zone with one another?
CHEADLE: When I heard Jeff was going to be the other actor, I was excited because I’m a big fan of his work. I was also excited about being onstage again in a situation that was really small. Two actors, the writer, and a director. But the play is very difficult, so comfort is not a word that comes into it.
WRIGHT: It’s about building an uncomfort zone.
Someone once asked Olivier about what quality was most important for an actor to have, and he said physical strength. When you guys come back for your bows, it seems there’s a whole lot of exhalation going on.
WRIGHT: Pretty much the whole piece, when it’s done right, feels like you take a breath when you begin and let it out at the end.
Topdog/Underdog is so tightly wound around those characters that it never slips over into being some didactic commentary about fratricide in the Black community. But playing it, are there didactic notes you guys may be trying to hit?
CHEADLE: I‘m not. I‘m so busy trying to concentrate on making sure we’re keeping the pressure on from moment to moment.
WRIGHT: I do like the whiteface Lincoln wears. I like the inflection of this subsistence mask that is seemingly necessary and at the same time suffocating. I like this struggle to maintain a societal relationship that requires an amputation or a facade. That a relationship with your brother is predicated on the suffocation of yourself.
This piece is a meditation on hustling, but then again, it could be read as a meditation on acting.
WRIGHT: On performance. Suzan-Lori Parks frequently has characters in her plays who are performers.
In your careers as Black actors, you’ve been able to sidestep the burden of savage nobility and the burden of only playing the stereotype or clown. They say that there are no small parts, only small actors. Is that as true for Black actors as for anybody else?
CHEADLE: Oh, there‘s definitely some small parts. I’ve been fortunate to work with people I’ve liked and respected. But things are changing for me now that I’ve got a family and a school-age daughter. If I’m going to make this my livelihood, I don’t want to be away for months at a time, and I don’t want to pull her out of school for months at a time. It’s going to be interesting to see how it pares down. To see if I have to go back to school and learn how to computer-program so that I don’t have to make this my livelihood in a way that would pimp it.
Jeffrey, you’ve taken a slower pace when it comes to movies, and you’re about to become a daddy, too.
WRIGHT: I’ve found film work to be, with maybe two exceptions, unfulfilling as a craft, because I don’t edit my performance. The director does—it’s a director’s medium. But it’s difficult to find directors whose voice I respect and who share a perspective on the work and the world. With film I often have to put on a mask to reveal a mask, much like Lincoln does. I find that very difficult sometimes—to put on a lie to reveal a veiled truth. I didn’t go into acting to make money. I went into it to get some shit off my chest.
Talk about working with George Wolfe.
CHEADLE: This is a first time for me. He’s pulled my coat on a couple of things. I just think he’s so smart and really odd in a very good way—in the way he thinks and the way events shake down for him in the basement of this piece, not just up high. He’s been very generous and available. It’s not like, “This is my artistic process. Do what I say and shut up.” He’s been available to harvest the shit out of these characters.
WRIGHT: There’s a line in Angels in America—I think it was Roy Cohn’s character, but, you know, the villain often speaks the truth. He says, “No one in this world makes it unless someone older and wiser takes an interest in them.“ George is like that person for me.
I don’t think you’ve let him down yet.