Jeffrey Nickelson saw Topdog/Underdog, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, on Broadway in 2002 with Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def in the lead roles, and he knew immediately that he wanted the Pulitzer Prize-winning play for his Shadow Theatre Company.
He was fascinated when he realized Topdog was written by a woman. "I hope that doesn't sound chauvinistic," he says. "The language reminded me of how James Baldwin could grasp the essence of being a woman; Parks could write men with that kind of clarity."
Nickelson was also struck by the playwright's ability to humanize her two lost and angry inner-city protagonists. "Our society is so judgmental," he says. "We lose sight of the fact that these are important spirits, too."
Topdog/Underdog is the story of two brothers left by their parents to fend for themselves at a young age, and named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke. As it turns out, Lincoln makes a living portraying his namesake in whiteface. The play is both funny and harrowing, and it works on several levels of history, myth and metaphor. Parks exploits the classic theme of envy and attachment between brothers while exploring race in America, balancing contemporary realities against historical ones.
Having finally secured the rights to Topdog, Nickelson will play Lincoln; Hugo Jon Sayles directs.
As Shadow ends its eighth season, Nickelson has not yet announced the ninth. He is redefining the company and abandoning the idea of a fixed season in search of more flexibility. "I want to be free to respond to what's going on out there," he says.
Topdog/Underdog opens tonight at 8 p.m. and runs through July 2 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street. Call 303-837-9355 for reservations. -- Juliet Wittman
Darrell Hammond's impersonations keep the laughs coming.
Chameleons don't attract attention. They're supposed to blend in.
That's probably why talented comic impersonator Darrell Hammond hasn't exactly been a breakout from the Saturday Night Live stage he's roamed since 1995. Sure, there was that uncomfortable role when he was sandwiched between Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen in last year's supposedly humorous New York Minute. But Hammond appears comfortable hiding inside the hide of well-known personalities. His rendition of hamburger-swiping, fry-stealing Bill Clinton was such an SNL hit that he actually shared a laugh on stage with the real Clinton at a D.C. bash.
Things haven't slacked off post-Bill, though, leaving plenty of room for Hammond to bash Bushies. From Veep Dick Cheney to Rummy and beyond, Hammond can merge with a character so well that he disappears.
To see what the real Hammond is like, head for the Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street, tonight at 8 and 10 p.m. or tomorrow at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tickets, $35 to $40 (plus two drinks), will get you a chance to see if he actually shape-shifts while cracking folks up. For information, call 303-595-3637 or go to www.comedyworks.com. -- Ernie Tucker