The day after their performance at Western’s Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, the cast, crew, and faculty directors in Western theatre’s production of “Topdog/Underdog” packed their bags and headed for Mexico City.
The troupe is set to perform Feb. 9-10 at an international university theater festival, the Festival Internacional de Teatro Universitario, hosted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, one of the largest universities in Latin America.
“Topdog/Underdog” follows two brothers, Booth and Lincoln, both black, working to figure out how to deal with poverty, gambling, racism, women and their own complicated family. It won playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002. She was the first African-American woman to win the award.
Director Mark Kuntz said he chose this play in reaction to the racially charged threats directed toward Western Associated Students President Belina Seare via social media in November 2015.
“This is a story about brothers, but putting it in the framework of Western, there is also something that means more to this community, and as we take it to Mexico it is going to mean something totally different to them,” actor Teague Parker said.
Festival Internacional de Teatro Universitario hosted Western students last year when they performed a collaborative play from a Mexican director. This year will be the first time Western has brought its own production.
“We should be exposing our students to these stories. I think when we are exposed to these stories we are smarter people,” said Kuntz. “So this is hopefully the beginning of a continued effort to tell stories of people who will broaden our perspective of the world.”
This is the first time Western has performed a play written by an African-American woman. It is only the second time Western has performed a play written by an African-American, the first being Jeff Augustin’s “Corktown” in 2014.
“Topdog/Underdog” is a play with minimal elements. The entire play takes place in a single, lightly furnished New York City apartment, eliminating the need for set changes, which is ideal for taking to Mexico.
The only two characters in the show are the two brothers. Booth, played by Western theater student Parker, and Lincoln, played by Michael Smith, a theater student from the University of Idaho.
The troupe heading to Mexico contains five Western students, Megan Birdsong, Kristina Cox, Janelle Kimbrough, Ryan Strecker and Parker; two Western theatre professors, Director Mark Kuntz and Darren McCroom, along with Smith from University of Idaho. They will be in Mexico for a week, performing twice, participating in workshops and experiencing the culture of Mexican theater.
Western will be the only university from the U.S. to attend. Other international guests include theater troupes from Poland, Germany, Spain, France and Colombia.
“It is supposed to be an international festival but they have their own resident performances and I want to see what their style of is and how they operate,” said Birdsong, a stagehand. “Even from a technical perspective, I would love to see how they do things behind the scenes.”
Mexican theater deals with broader topics and uses abstractions and symbols to tell a story, Kuntz said. Their plays are also very political, he said.
“It’s a voice for young artists to share their political situation and they hold theater to a very high standard that way,” Kuntz said “You are expecting to talk about our cultural condition, about what’s going on in our world and be assaulted by it.”
After Mexico, Kuntz, Parker and Smith will be going to Denver, Colorado for The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region 7 Feb. 15-19.