Interview: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on His Humbling Tony Nomination for Topdog/Underdog

The actor looks back on his starring turn in the Suzan-Lori Parks classic last fall.

One of the great theatrical images of the fall Broadway season was Yahya Abdul-Mateen II arriving onstage in Topdog/Underdog and comically disrobing the several business suits he had on, all stolen by his character, Booth, from a department store. Abdul-Mateen’s assured Broadway debut in the Suzan-Lori Parks drama, directed by Kenny Leon and also starring Corey Hawkins, wasn’t all for laughs though. As anyone who saw the tale of two brothers can attest, the final scene, particularly as played by this now Tony-nominated performer, was a completely devastating one.

Here, Abdul-Mateen looks back on his 2022 run at the Golden Theatre, and tells us what his Tony nomination means to him.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog
(© Marc J. Franklin)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Was Topdog/Underdog one of those plays you always wanted to do?
I’ve wanted to do this part for 20 years. It allowed me to, without any training, be myself and find comfort in the language, the subject matter, the Blackness, the cultural significance, and the humanity. It just truly changed my perspective. It felt good. It was rewarding from the minute I started reading. I knew that I had to do it at some point, and I was very blessed.

With all that it means to you, what was it like to perform every night with Corey?
I had the best seat in the house. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was like a tight rope act every night. It was dangerous. It was exhilarating. It was scary. To be able to do that with Corey, he was just a phenomenal acting partner. We were just playing this two-man game. There were no egos in the room. I just really loved the opportunity to be up there and performing for so many people night after night after night.

One of the moments etched in my mind is you removing the multiple suits that you had on. Tell me about creating that scene.
There are a couple of things going on in that scene. Booth is a character who wants people to believe he’s a good person who’s good at something. That he had some value. For him, it’s a celebration of what he knows how to do. He’s not really good at the cards. He wants his brother to be proud of him and give some dignity back to his brother. After that, it was about my imagination and how I can make it interesting. I tried to put my own style into it, too. But yeah, that was one of my favorite scenes, as well.

What does the Tony nomination mean to you for this role?
To be able to get a Tony nomination for a play that I love is something that I never expected. We don’t do it for the awards. It was really all about the art and really all about Booth. At the end of that process, to be a Tony nominee…I was looking at the list of nominees through history and I saw Sidney Poitier’s name on it for A Raisin in the Sun. I remember writing my personal statement to get into Yale Drama, and it was really based on the legacy of Sidney Poitier.

I don’t go into these things with awards in mind — I really do try to keep it about the work — but what it means to me is that the work that I did was recognized as something true, something real. It’s a labor of love. It is difficult. It’s a serious game of serious craft. I love the theater community, and that it was recognized by the great theater community is humbling.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog
(© Marc J. Franklin)