Actor-director jeff obafemi carr and NFL great Eddie George have a lot riding on the explosive drama Topdog/Underdog
Game Changer
by Ron Wynn

Eric England
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click to enlarge Eric England

* Eric England

Eddie George and Dr. jeff obafemi carr in Topdog/Underdog

Eddie George and Dr. jeff obafemi carr in Topdog/Underdog

outtakes from a photoshoot with Eddie George and Dr. jeff obafemi carr

Click to View 14 slides

Ten years ago, on Sunday afternoons, Eddie George was used to standing in coliseums — taking the field with self-assurance before tens of millions. Five years ago, he stood all but alone in a North Nashville graveyard, and he was uneasy. It was the middle of the night, chilly and damp.

With no one to hear, except ancestors lying in unmarked graves, the NFL great cleared his throat and began to speak:

"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul. ..."

That wasn't good enough for the only living soul around who could hear him. Standing nearby, his reluctant acting teacher, Nashville film and stage actor and playwright jeff obafemi carr, made him do it again. And again. And again.

"So what do you see?" carr demanded whenever George finished. "We'll stand here all night until you see."

Frustrated, but even more determined, George looked around as he began to recite William Ernest Henley's 1875 poem "Invictus" yet again. Then he began to notice things. Despite the chill, winter was turning to spring. The moon was at the far corner of the sky from where the sun would rise. That's when George saw what carr was trying to show him.

"I was at a crossroads!" George says, reliving the moment as he sits with carr on the stage of his teacher's Amun Ra Theatre on Clifton Street. "I understood what he was trying to tell me. I was at the crossroads in terms of whether [acting] was really what I wanted to do with my life.

"I told him that yes, this was what I wanted to do, and that now I really understood why he had me reciting the passage from 'Invictus' about transitions in life."

Five years later, they're about to find out how firm his commitment really is. On May 21 at TPAC's Polk Theater, for one night only, George and carr will star in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog — a two-man show that places extraordinary demands even on veteran actors.

For George, it's the ultimate test of what he says is his chosen career path. For carr, it's the most public demonstration yet of Amun Ra's ambitions, which won't let him settle for a pat on the head for a good try. That's not why the Nashville-raised actor and theater-company founder famously set up residence on the building's rooftop in a lightning storm, to further its outreach efforts.

"Our whole season has been about confronting challenges and going beyond the expected," carr says, scooping up and gently dropping three tent-folded playing cards over and over on a cardboard box lid as George sits nearby onstage. "We don't ever want anyone to come in here and say, well, they did a good job considering the circumstances. 'Oh, they did a good job considering they had only 12 lights to work with.' If somebody's sitting there counting the lights, your show is in trouble."

Needless to say, carr doesn't want anyone coming away from this production saying it was OK for a play starring an ex-jock. It's time to rehearse — again. He picks up the cards.

Topdog/Underdog tells the story of Lincoln and Booth, two brothers who've had to depend on each other since they were teenagers. Abandoned by their parents, Lincoln forged a livelihood by mastering the con game Three-Card Monte. His skill at deftly maneuvering the cards and outwitting all comers is legendary — but it also led to a life of crime and eventual imprisonment.

Now Linc works carnivals and on street corners, wearing whiteface (as part of an Abraham Lincoln get-up) and trying to stay one step ahead of both his customers and the law. His younger brother, Booth, desperately wants to learn his brother's tricks, then ultimately best him.

Their relationship is a striking blend of love and resentment, rivalry and closeness, and Parks' script requires nothing less than mastery in delivery, expressiveness and emotional range. Not only is every precisely worded line of Topdog/Underdog threaded with multiple meanings — in language that evokes rap, a con man's spiel, poetry and incantation — the actors must be equally convincing whether they're acting out the tangled sibling relationship or pulling off the mechanics of a street hustle.

That's why, in every spare moment, carr sits at his box-top table, practicing the effortless "throw" that is both Linc's curse and his gift. It has to look like second nature. carr palms the cards, then waves his hand across the box top. Like magic, the cards settle so smoothly you can't see them drop from his hand. It surprises even him.

"Hey, that was a good one!" he exults, gesturing across the stage to his partner. With a sly smile, carr says "an unnamed relation" showed him the moves — not just the deal, but also the conspiratorial look-around and the lean-closer murmur that are part of the three-card trade. George grins and congratulates him.

Amun Ra's slate this season has already earned a reputation for daring, first with a stage adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, then Samuel Beckett's challenging existential vaudeville Waiting for Godot. But Topdog/Underdog may be its biggest risk yet. Considering that the play was originally performed off-Broadway by Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright (later by Wright and Mos Def), carr and George realize they are stepping into extremely big shoes.

"We started rehearsing and working on this play last summer," carr says, sweeping up the cards yet again. "We've been constantly polishing the dialogue, working on the interaction and of course perfecting the card scenes. When I thought about doing this for Amun Ra, I knew it would require someone who was capable of really getting into the humanity of the characters, establishing a rapport onstage, and being able to show the complexity of their relationship."

He thought of George, who made his Nashville stage debut with Amun Ra in a production of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones. George had worked extensively with carr in various acting and speech classes, and the actor-director thought he was ready to step up. carr acknowledges that five years ago, when he heard the former Heisman Trophy winner and all-time Titans football great wanted to try his hand at acting, he was skeptical.

" 'Is he serious?' was my first response," carr says. "You hear all the time from people that my son, nephew, niece, uncle, you name him, wants to be an actor. I wasn't interested in wasting my time."

That changed, carr says, when he found out George had taken classes as a kid in Philadelphia at the legendary Freedom Theatre, one of the country's most established African American theater companies. The next step was to find out how serious he was.

"I put him through tongue twisters, long soliloquies, Shakespeare, everything I could come up with that would easily discourage anyone who wasn't totally serious," carr remembers, laughing and throwing the cards yet again with robotic repetition. "He just took them all in, didn't flinch and kept getting better."

Even so, it's a long way from acting-lesson boot camp to a play as difficult as Topdog/Underdog. carr says he made it even more of a challenge by casting somewhat against type — making straight-arrow George the envious, big-talking schemer, and toning down his own confidence and ease onstage to play the beaten-down Lincoln.

"I chose the part of Lincoln because I'm a little older than Eddie, yet we're still close enough chronologically that the gap isn't so great," carr explains. "Lincoln's at a point in his life where he's not totally jaded, but he also realizes he hasn't fulfilled what he thinks his potential in life is and he knows he won't be able to do certain things he wanted to do.

"His brother wants to know all his tricks, and he's willing to show him some things, but he also doesn't want him to ever forget who's really the best. So that's another layer that's between them, one that keeps emerging as you get through the play."

There's no sign of any such tension between carr the teacher and George the eager apprentice in Amun Ra's afternoon rehearsals. If carr's job is to make the card-sharking look smooth, George's is to make Booth's attempts look realistically clumsy — the graceless imitation of someone who doesn't have the gift.

George, as Booth, practices his three-card spiel, only to have carr interrupt him from offstage.

"That's too smooth," carr tells him. "You had me believing it, and I shouldn't believe it." George smiles sheepishly. He gathers up the cards again, then does it rougher, messier, fumbling the cards. "That's it — good," carr says.

George takes every director's note with furious concentration, breaking down every line reading to get the most meaning. It doesn't matter if carr stops him several times within a sentence: George listens, then incorporates the suggestion — make a gesture bigger, use a braggart's swagger, play up the vicious satisfaction Booth wants from beating a sucker.

The same ability to focus on several things at once made George a great running back. At times, his Booth even moves with some of the same fluid, instinctual style George once showed on the field. But for the famed former Titan, Topdog/Underdog represents a graduate course in acting — his transition to a new identity.

"My goal with this role is to totally get away from the notion that you're seeing Eddie George the football player onstage," George says. Sitting across from carr, who's slouched for the moment across a prop armchair, he's as coiled and keyed-up as carr is comfortable, fingers locked, knees braced as if for impact.

"This is a very tough role," he says, "and acting in general in many ways is every bit as demanding as football. Acting is very physical. You've got to use your body, control your breathing and your voice, learn how to get to the heart of a role and be effective and credible in showing emotion. You have to get out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself and find a depth in yourself that you didn't know you could reach."

His resolve was steeled, he says, by a recent encounter with an acting great. Because he felt it was something he just had to see — "just like if I could go back in time and see Barry Sanders or Walter Payton play" —George went with carr to New York to see the current Broadway revival of August Wilson's Fences, starring Denzel Washington. They even waited behind a barricade after the play with a throng of teenage girls, only to have the exiting star single George out of the crowd: "Hey, there's one of the greatest running backs in NFL history! Why are you standing back there like a groupie?"

As they talked one on one, Washington asked George what he was doing. When he replied that he was acting and working on Topdog/Underdog, the star's response was humbling: "Then what the hell are you doing here?"

"That let me know it was time to get back and go to work," George says. "He told me to make sure that you always respect the craft, always be prepared, never go out there without a purpose. I remember watching him in Fences, and there was a scene where he finds out that someone he loves has just died. His knees buckled, right there onstage, and it's incredibly moving.

"I asked him where he got that. He said that he remembered being in the bathtub as a kid and pretending that he had drowned and was floating in the water. His father came in and saw him lying there, and his knees buckled. He remembered that vividly and had stored it in his brain for just the right time.

"Of course, he also told me that he had to come up with something really good because he was afraid his father was going to really get him good with the belt," George adds, laughing.

Last year, a sell-out crowd saw carr and George give a public reading of Topdog/Underdog. By now, carr says, they've been rehearsing the play for so long they've developed the kind of offstage rapport that only brothers have. Recalling George's jittery first moments before a live audience in God's Trombones, they roar with laughter, kid each other like siblings, and finish each other's sentences.

carr says that's all to the play's benefit. Everything in Topdog/Underdog is so dependent on timing, response and reaction that the slightest change in direction, intonation or inference can completely alter the tone and sensibility of the production.

"To be honest with you, both of us now really can't wait for this to begin," carr says. "We've been tweaking this, working on lines, going over it so much, that now we want to get that energy out there onstage. There are times now when I'll be just talking with friends or walking around, and I'll get an idea for something in a scene. We'll call each other and say, how about saying this line a little softer, or how about expanding the way we did the cards in that scene? We're both really ready for this to happen."

Nature, however, insisted on scattering their deck. Both men were out of town when the flood waters rose in Nashville the weekend of May 1. The flood forced Amun Ra to end Waiting for Godot's run early. It also robbed the theater company of the grand locale that was to house Topdog/Underdog's post-production benefit gala — the Governor's Ballroom at the Opryland Hotel.

But carr says Gaylord is helping him relocate the event, and it will still go on after the May 21 show, featuring vocal group SWV and a silent auction with WQQK-92.1FM program director Kenny Smoov hosting. Continuing the event, he says, is important for the same reason proceeds will go toward sending kids in Amun Ra's outreach classes on a trip to Africa — indeed, for the same reason he and Eddie George signed on to do the toughest, most exacting play they could find.

"We don't want [the kids] to think in terms of zip codes," carr says. "We want them to feel that they can accomplish anything in the world that anyone else can, and they don't need to limit their vision or their reach.

"That's the same goal we have for Amun Ra Theatre, and the reason that I went up there on the roof and stayed until we raised all that money. It was about sacrifice and purpose. That's what we want to show the kids, and also what we want Amun Ra to exemplify in the community."

He palms the cards yet again. It's another clean throw, beautiful. carr catches Eddie George's eye across the stage, and the two exchange sneaky grins.

"You know," carr says, cracking up his castmate, "I think I could do this."