Curtain Calls XTRA

By Donald V. Calamia

Preview: 'Topdog/Underdog'

African Renaissance out to prove who's 'top dog'

When you're one of the "new kids" in town - that is, you're the producer of one of Detroit's newest up-and-coming professional theater companies - there's a certain need (or is it obligation?) to make a big splash from the moment your curtain rises for the very first time.

And once that happens - what do you stage as an encore?

That's the million-dollar question Oliver Pookrum has been pondering ever since his African Renaissance Theater opened its doors in March 2003 with "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" - a mega-hit that took Metro Detroit's theater community by storm. Not only was it a box office hit, but the drama quickly became the critical darling of the 2002 - 2003 season.

"We were lucky enough to do a good enough job at it where we got a lot of attention," recalled the energetic Pookrum in a discussion last week with Curtain Calls.

It was a play Pookrum first encountered while living in New York in 1999. "At the time I never thought that one day I'd be producing and performing in it, especially under my own theater company," he said.

Pookrum returned the following season with "The Trip," a comedy that wasn't particularly well received by the same critics who earlier sung his praises.

Such a response didn't deter the passionate, young producer, however. Instead, he set about making plans for a triumphant return this season - and put into motion a long-range strategy that includes a permanent home for his fledgling company.

"Topdog/Underdog"

The first phase of Pookrum's concept hits the stage Nov.25 with the Michigan premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Topdog/Underdog," the first in what ART advertises as a season of three "hard hitting and unforgettable plays."

Its author, Suzan-Lori Parks, was the first African American women to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama. "It's very creatively written with a lot of intensity and passion, and that's the type of stuff we like to do," Pookrum said.

Parks' plot is a variation of the Cain and Able story from the Bible: A former Three Card Monte hustler finds a job and tries to go straight, while his jobless brother tries to become a legendary hustler in his own right. The two were abandoned by their parents while teenagers, and life ever since has not been kind to the brothers.

It's a story, Pookrum says, about people who don't have the courage to confront their own insecurities and fears, but instead, act out against others in their own frustration.

"It's not an easy play," said Pookrum, who will appear as the younger of two brothers, Booth, in the production. "I like plays that show a lot of humanity in the characters, and I think 'Topdog/Underdog' has challenges in that case. The characters, to me, don't have enough redeeming qualities - and I like that in a play. I think it's important that there be some type of healing in a play. Hopefully, we manage to make this play something that doesn't just drain you of your energy; it's pretty intense!"

Getting "Topdog/Underdog" off the printed page and onto the stage has not been easy.

Opening night was originally scheduled for Nov. 5 - and then delayed a week - and eventually moved to Thanksgiving Day when problems with an out-of-town actor developed only a few days prior to opening.

The role was recently recast, however, with Douglas K. McCray assuming the role of Lincoln. It's a change that both pleases and excites Pookrum.

"[The role of Lincoln] is a huge part and a challenging part to learn in such a short time," he said of McCray's assumption of the role. "It's very interesting to see how my character has changed in response to a new actor. It's fun!"

Home - For Now

"Topdog/Underdog" will be followed by two other shows this season: "Urban Transitions: Loose Blossoms" in Feb. and a revival of "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" in late April.

All performances will be held at the Redd Apple Gallery located at 227 Iron Street, one block east of Mt. Elliot off Jefferson in Detroit. It's an arrangement that's mutually satisfying to both Pookrum and gallery owner/curator Katrina Redd.

"Katrina and I were both on the board at the Hackley, an historical collection at the Detroit Public Library. She had a one-year celebration of her gallery, she invited me, I went, I liked the space, she said she was interested in doing some theater there, I had a theater company, so we decided to join forces."

Not only does Redd provide space for Pookrum's shows, she also serves as the group's managing director and co-producer.

"It's a nice stop on the way to the YMCA," he teased.

Beginning Feb.2006, Pookrum's shows will be staged at the now-under construction YMCA located on Broadway in downtown Detroit. The facility will include a state-of-the-art studio theater.

"And we're going to be one of the resident [theater] companies there. It's basically a done deal; we're just waiting on them to actually build it!"

In the meantime, the African Renaissance Theater is focusing its attention on the opening of "Topdog/Underdog."

"Everybody's been patient with the process of trying to build a theater," he concluded, "and I thank them for that!"

For complete information about "Topdog/Underdog" or to purchase an ART PASS for $50 which entitles members to discounts on all events at the Redd Apple Gallery, call 313-567-0712.

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