By Shannon Nia Alomar
A notable work of art or a tool Hofstra is using to “demonize black men”? That is the question on campus surrounding the play “Topdog/Underdog” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.
Every summer a book is assigned for incoming first-year students to read before officially beginning their collegiate career at Hofstra. The purpose of this book is to connect students through open discussions that introduce them to ideals, situations and issues they may have not come across previously. For the Class of 2019, Parks’ play was chosen as the literary focal point and it has left many consumers intrigued or enraged, depending on what side of the debate they are rooted in.
Alumni from the Department of Drama and Dance, including Lamar K. Cheston, Isaiah Stanley and Kara-Lynn Vaeni, were included in the process of bringing the play to campus. Cheston and Stanley portray the brothers Lincoln and Booth in the play.
The webpage on Hofstra’s site introducing the common reading selection allows readers to learn more about the author and the work itself, and also allows them to watch videos of Hofstra professors addressing “Topdog/Underdog” from various perspectives.
While some of the professors commentated on the theatrical aspects and literary formation of the work, the question of language and “reflection of racism” made its way into some of the explanations.
Alan Singer, professor of teacher education, made a point to alert the viewer that his expertise does not fall into the category of artistic critique, but his focus for this piece was his background in history and the exploration of rights surrounding race in America.
“They are black men who are trying to survive in a racist society that gives them little opportunity and is mimed with booby-traps,” Singer said while explaining the positions of the two brothers Lincoln and Booth.
Like Singer, many people viewed the characters through the lens of race, while others, such as Jennifer Hart, Professor of theater, drama and dance, saw them simply as flawed characters.
“These are desperate people needing desperate things from each other, and they’re willing to try anything and that is what’s dramatic about this play. And that’s why theater people love this play,” Hart said.
Suzan-Lori Parks was contacted for a statement but did not respond, however, in the documentary piece entitled “The Topdog Diaries,” Parks talks about her perception of the play being racially motivated.
“Black people, when they hang out, is it an ‘exploration of race’ just two black people in a room together … I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t planning, I wasn’t plotting, I wasn’t strategizing, I wasn’t thinking of issues or themes or anything. There was nothing, absolutely none of that. I was just moving my hand around on a keyboard,” Parks said during an interview with Lisa Simeone, former NPR host.
When Parks visited Hofstra’s campus during Welcome Week to give more of an insight on the play, it is said that she again restated the notion that she did not consider race as a motivating factor for her play. In fact, she mentioned how quickly she wrote the play, which to some was shocking.
Dr. Jonathan Lightfoot, associate professor of teacher education, expressed his disdain for Hofstra University making the play a requirement of the first-year students by protesting at The Helene Fortunoff Theater for the four nights the play was in session during Welcome Week.
The first night, he stood outside of the theater handing out a memo addressed to the Hofstra community and from concerned faculty, and Lightfoot said he was met with much resistance.
“The Dean of Students, Sofia Pertuz, I’m really disappointed in her because she tried to stop me and she instructed her Welcome Week staff to take [the memo] from the students … And I told her, you don’t have the right to do that, to restrict these students from freedom of information,” Lightfoot said.
In addition to the papers being taken from students, Lightfoot talked about the technical director, James P. Hart, and how he questioned Lightfoot about why he was protesting and if he “had ever seen a play before.”
Despite the opposition to his stance, Lightfoot said many students thanked him for the additional information and engaged him in conversation. There were even students who encouraged him to continue to openly express his opinion and to explain his sign that clearly read, “Hofstra uses TOPDOG/UNDERDOG to demonize black men.”
Lightfoot also made sure to mention he is in no way trying to attack the stylistic choices Parks made to bring this piece to life, his concern is more connected to the University choosing this play to be the required reading selection for the Class of 2019.
Sofiya Rubenova, first-year political science major, said she did not instantly relate the play to race and felt Topdog/Underdog was a good choice for the students to read.
“After the play, many students spoke up about how they believe the play was about race. Honestly, race was not the first issue that I thought about, even though the actors themselves stated that some of the problems portrayed in the play demonstrate real-life issues that African-Americans face today. Granted, I still believe that these issues can be observed in multiple races. The play was definitely a good selection for first-year students. I think it prepared us to listen, observe and analyze material more intricately. I think a main portion of High school was ‘summarizing’ what we read or saw but Topdog/Underdog really allowed all of us to process and interpret the play from many angles,” Rubenova said.
Upperclassmen, such as junior television and film major Natasha Rowley, also attended the play. Rowley said she enjoyed the play theatrically but was confused by the takeaway message, or lack thereof.
“Honestly, I would ask the author/playwright the purpose of her play. What was she truly trying to convey? What exactly did she want the audience to walk away with? I don’t think the play focused on race as much as it should [have]. Yes, the two main characters were African-American but in terms of bringing race into the discussion, that’s as far as it went. It was more focused on class and the stress of living in poverty. And many fail to acknowledge that race and class intersect … The characters’ situations and actions in their [lives] are the way they are because of not only their class but also because they are black,” Rowley said.
Overall, the debate regarding the play has two apparent sides, but in terms of the concerned faculty whose memo was handed out to students by Dr. Jonathan Lightfoot for the duration of the play’s run here on campus, there are three main focal points they would like to have addressed.
One is acknowledgment that this play did disturb some viewers, faculty and students alike. The second point is transparency regarding the full selection committee for the play, which was not provided. Lastly, they would like to meet with the provost to discuss a more progressive fashion of touching upon race and diversity on Hofstra’s campus.
This story will continue to be investigated and updates will be provided as they are discovered. (12)