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February 11, 2008
The Topdog


There’s only one week left of the current production of “Topdog/Underdog” at Sacramento Theatre Company. While I’m not enamored with the play itself, this is a worthy production with smart direction from Benny Sato Ambush and particularly strong performances from Hassan El-Amin and Adrian Roberts.

Thinking of “Topdog” always reminds me of seeing it in New York in 2002. It ran on Broadway with Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def. About 10 minutes into the show at the Ambassador Theatre, it seemed the dilapidated-apartment set had its own olfactory special effects when it started to smell of smoke. Suddenly, an announcement came over the house PA telling everyone to evacuate the theater immediately because of a fire.

The next thing I knew, I was standing on the sidewalk next to Wright, somewhat surreal in his white-face makeup. Wright shook his head, “That’s too bad. We were really getting into it tonight.”

Three nights later, I was back at the theater and found myself seated next to legendary writer-director Melvin Van Peebles. The scowling Van Peebles is a famously grumpy cat, but I told him I was from Sacramento and had once seen a rather amazing production of his play “Ain’t Supposed To Die a Natural Death.”

Van Peebles immediately brightened and said that production by the original Sons and Ancestors Players and directed by Paul Carter Harrison was the reason it went to Broadway in the very theater we were sitting in.

Van Peebles opened the program to a page that acknowledged notable productions at the theater and his play was there. At intermission, the house manager approached Van Peebles, saying that Wright and Def had heard he was in the house and wanted to invite him backstage after the show. Van Peebles just kind of shrugged and said, “No thanks. Maybe some other time.”

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