February 21, 2008

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Breaking the cycle
Yellow Taxi opens season with Suzan-Lori Parks play
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog. It follows the frustrations of brothers Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln had been a master of Three Card Monte, which Booth wants to learn, but Lincoln swore off cards after his best friend was killed. They are trying to make a better life but don’t know how, said Suzanne Delle, founder of six-year-old professional company Yellow Taxi Productions.

Yellow Taxi participated in Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays project last year, and Delle wanted to see more from the playwright. In that project, theater companies across the country and a few other places each took a week of short plays to perform. Parks had written a play a day for a year, starting in 2002. YTP was working on the premiere of Six Nights in the Black Belt by Nashua’s Lowell Williams at about the same time; Raphael Rawlins portrayed Carmichael in that show, and Delle wanted to work with him again. Topdog/Underdog created that opportunity. Delle directs.

Steven M. Key auditioned with Rawlins in the room and Delle felt the pair clicked and were believable as brothers. This is the Boston actor’s first time appearing with YTP, tackling this role and performing in a two-character piece.

Key said playing Walter Lee Younger in Raisin in the Sun for the Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain is probably the closest role he’s had to what Lincoln requires: “That character had to deal with lot of different emotions and feelings on stage. Putting that out there was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Key said.

Key became interested in Topdog/Underdog after his Needham acting coach asked him to pick an audition monologue from it. Looking at the names, “you got the idea somebody’s going to shoot somebody,” Key said.

And Key could relate. His childhood wasn’t as down and out as Lincoln and Booth’s — his parents didn’t abandon him — but he did grow up at a time when Boston streets were more dangerous, people were hustling and he started working as a teen to help his family, he said.

As the older brother, Lincoln is “probably more knowledgeable” and understands the streets more, but he is trying go legit, Key said. He faces a dilemma when he loses his job.

There are extra lines to memorize in a two-person play, and Key has to get to the subtext of all of those, he said.

Key, an attorney, is working toward an Actor’s Equity card. He’s understudied at the Huntington Theater for Radio Golf, and played Colin Powell in Stuff Happens with Zeitgeist Stage Company, among other roles in the Boston area.

He is currently practicing law independently so he’ll have flexibility to act. Acting skills transfer to trial work.

“I’m putting my client’s story in front of the jury,” he said. Just as in directing a play, Key controls what evidence or witnesses go in front of the jury to control the story.

Topdog/Underdog kicks off YTP’s 2008 season. The New England premiere of Clean Alternatives by Brian Dysktra follows in April. YTP joins Nashua’s Summer Fun programming to present The Beard of Avon by Amy Freed for free in Greeley Park in Nashua in the summer and YTP produces Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood in September.


Steven Key to appear in Topdog/Underdog. Courtesy photo.

The where and when
What: Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks, presented by Yellow Taxi Productions
When: Thursday, Feb. 28, Friday, Feb. 29, and Saturday, March 1, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m.
Where: Pinkerton Academy stage, 5 Pinkerton St., Derry
Tickets: $15-$25, www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1201
Info: www.yellowtaxiproductions.org, 791-4558.