By Mark Kennedy | The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Yahya Abdul-Mateen II first encountered the play “Topdog/Underdog” in college, performing a section as a favor for a student director who needed actors for a showcase. It turned into a favor for Abdul-Mateen.
“I immediately came alive. I used to struggle with contemporary work because none of the characters felt like me. I didn’t really relate,” he says. “It unlocked something inside of me where I just could give everything that I had to give to it.”
Abdul-Mateen returned to Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer-winning work this winter, earning a Tony Award nomination in his Broadway debut opposite Corey Hawkins.
“To be on Broadway was always the goal. I didn’t even need to be a star of a show. I just wanted to be on the stage and to have more than a few lines and that was success,” he says.
“Just to be able to fulfill the artistic calling and to do it on that stage was what the goal was. And to have my first Broadway experience doing ‘Topdog/Underdog,’ it’s just a gift. It’s a full circle moment for me.”
“Topdog/Underdog” is about two brothers, abandoned in their teenage years, named Lincoln and Booth, as they deal with the ramifications of their history while fending for themselves by hustling. It’s about sibling rivalry, inequality and society’s false promises.
Abdul-Mateen calls it “a peek into what life might be like for someone in the city over or in your next door neighbor’s house or upstairs on the third floor. It’s a deeply, deeply, deeply human story.”
The play’s revival came during a season with rich explorations of the Black experience, including a Black-led “Death of a Salesman” and a revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” All show an American dream that is cracked.
“These guys are just really trying to strive to fulfill their dreams, to step into the identity of who they know they are on the inside. And their life doesn’t really give them a chance to do that,” says Abdul-Mateen.
Tony-winning director Kenny Leon says Abdul-Mateen wasn’t finished exploring his character, even after the play opened or after the reviews came in. He and Leon were still talking about the work up until the show’s closing in January.
“Almost up until the last audience, he was still trying to give his best. You don’t find artists like that all the time who want to explore it like that. This is one of the few times that I met the talent that was willing to go with me as deep as I wanted to go, and as long as I wanted to go.”
In a supremely ironic twist, Abdul-Mateen will face-off for the lead actor in a play Tony trophy with his onstage brother, Hawkins, extending their sibling rivalry off-stage.
“I honestly feel that I could not have given the performance that I gave without Corey and humbly I would say vice versa,” Abdul-Mateen says.
“When we looked across the table and across the room, we saw someone who had the same level of respect for what it was that we were doing. It was like game recognize game.”
The two actors had never worked together before but left a lasting impression. “If he wins, then I get to tease him. If I win, I get to tease him. And if neither of us win, then we get to tease ourselves, you know what I mean?”
On June 11 at the Tony Awards, Abdul-Mateen and Hawkins will also have to fend off competition from Sean Hayes, in “Good Night, Oscar,” Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Between Riverside and Crazy” and Wendell Pierce from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
If he wins, Abdul-Mateen will have a Tony to go along with an Emmy for his acclaimed performance as Dr. Manhattan in HBO’s lauded series “Watchmen.” His film credits include Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” as Bobby Seale, Jordan Peele’s “Us” and Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman.”
He played opposite Jason Momoa as the villainous Black Manta in the 2018 blockbuster “Aquaman” and will reprise his role in the upcoming “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.” He’s the rare actor able to jump from DC to Marvel, since he’s also the lead of the Disney+ series “Wonder Man.”
“I was thinking a couple of days ago about my career trajectory. And I think the story is just consistency — just patience and consistency. And that’s really the recipe for me.”
Abdul-Mateen has also launched a production company, House Eleven10, and signed a deal with Netflix, with the actor starring in and producing films for the streamer.
He says he hopes to attract top talent for whatever the company makes, big or small, with a commitment to culture, language, ambition and style — or CLASS.
“I don’t want to do one type of thing, but I want to make sure that that there’s a throughline through everything that I do,” he says. “We have a chance to put our values into what it is that we care about, which I think makes it ultimately fresh and cool and unique.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits