Biko Eisen-Martin (on right in photo above) is a Bay Area native who has returned to co-star in Marin Theatre Company’s “TOPDOG/UNDERDOG” by Suzan-Lori Parks directed by Timothy Douglas.
He will reprise the role of Booth, the younger brother and hustler, who tries to draw older brother Lincoln back into his scams. Lincoln has gone straight and has a steady job as a black Abraham Lincoln impersonator.
Eisen-Martin taught history at Berkeley High. As a youth, Eisen-Martin attended the prestigious Branson School in Ross, arising before dawn to catch the bus from San Francisco. He was a member of “Youth Speaks,” Bay Area’s first spoken word artists and educators.
Eisen-Martin received his MFA from the National Theatre Center in April, earned his Actors’ Equity card at the Denver Theatre Center, and is represented by the Harden-Curtis Associates.
He auditioned for the role while in town; he had played the role in a conservatory production at the Denver’s National Theatre Center.
Here is the phone interview I had last week with actor Biko Eisen-Martin:
You play Booth, the younger brother, the hustler. Did you ever hustle?
No (he laughs).
Have you thought about running a 3-card Monte to prepare for the role?
No, I’m not that much of a method actor (more laughter).
How are you preparing for the role?
Script analysis, trying to get the language right and in my body… with close attention to the punctuation….there is something bubbling…like when the scansion is off or over punctuated in Shakespeare.
Who plays your older brother Lincoln?
Bowman Wright. He recently got his MFA down at UC San Diego, and he’s Equity, also.
How are you working on this together?
Sending it at each other….kind of a call and response. We’re trying to get in synch in support and familiarity more than in physical traits like walking or talking.
Do you have brothers?
Yes, a big brother.
How do you see the character of Lincoln (your brother)?
As a street god…a legend…a father figure.
How do you see Lincoln (the President)?
I don’t think the play is about Abraham Lincoln, so that hasn’t changed in the process of the show. I know how my character feels about him, and you can come to the play to find out how. I know how I feel about him, and…well, that’s irrelevant to my performance.
Have things changed for African-Americans since Suzan-Lori Parks wrote this almost a decade ago?
This play is not just about African-Americans …it’s about brothers who are poor which transcends race.
But to answer your question, there are negatives and positive: Katrina exposed a lot of the actions of what the government will do. Young brothers get killed at an alarming rate. A black person is killed by law enforcement every 36 hours. Rising price of higher education is limiting Black communities.
But kids are making positive contributions, showing up to school facing some of the worst circumstances. Just like Lincoln shows up every day at work.
“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG” is a family story. Rich brothers have crazy/competitive/loving relationships, too. The specificity of the demographic makes it a good story, but it’s still universal.
But, like I said, the point of this show is not to educate you about black people….
Who are your theatrical influences and teachers?
Two men, mainly.
L. Peter Callender–I took his class at Cal Shakes and he directed me in PATRICIDE REVISITED at the SF Theatre Festival in 2009.
And my mentor SF Poetry Grand Slam Winner Marc Bamuthi Joseph who is now the director of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Do you still teach?
I still do workshops on spoken word poetry…I still try to rap (he laughs). Still perform in high schools sometimes…but it doesn’t pay the bills.
Do you come from a bi-racial background?
How is that relevant? I am, but type-casting is difficult, once you get pigeon-holed.
There are so many actors who don’t get shots. I’m trying to stretch the limits, but race and casting are still an issue.
Who is directing it and what can you tell us about the direction?
Timothy Douglas. He’s a perfect blend of natural, less intellectual, and one of the smartest directors I’ve had in the way he breaks down moments for us while keeping us in the moment.
What’s in your future professionally?
More auditions. Waiting to be called.
“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG” is celebrating the 10th Anniversary of its Pulitzer Prize for Drama win, and the first and only for an African American woman. The play was seen in the Bay Area in 2003 when the Broadway production toured through San Francisco. Marin Theatre Company is producing the first local professional production of the play.
“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG” plays at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley through October 21st.
For more info & tickets, go to http://marintheatre.org/